Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle whipped BillsMafia into a frenzy last night by stating that the Bills were one of the teams interested in free agent defensive tackle D.J. Reader. Reader may pose as a nose tackle standing 6-foot-3, 337 pounds, but he is much more than that. Reader’s defensive role has changed over the years, and he has morphed into a more versatile defender than most people think. Teammate Brandon Dunn actually saw more snaps are pure nose tackle than Reader in 2019. The former Clemson Tiger was moved up and down the line in the Texans’ exotic defense, a defense that was in base 29%, nickel 51%, and dime 19% of the time.
So I’m late getting on the band wagon that @BrandonThornNFL has been driving since 2017, but finally popped on some DJ Reader tape last night and will now be pounding the table for him in Denver.
— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) January 31, 2020
Reader would bring a diverse set of skills to go with his massive frame. He can quickly process run blocking concepts, is very difficult to move, has tremendous lateral agility, can occupy multiple offensive linemen, and can stack and shed with the best of them. The former fifth-round draft pick’s 2019 season was his best season. He racked up 22 total pressures, 41 solo tackles, and 35 run stops, all career highs, according to Pro Football Focus. Reader is one hell of an athlete and player, and the Bills would love to have someone who can not only keep linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano free, but can also make plays himself, something that was missing last year.
— patrick (@PatDStat) October 16, 2019
Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei restructured his deal, which freed up some money for the Bills, but they are still stuck with that pricey contract for the foreseeable future. His primary backup and ascending player Harrison Phillips is coming off of an ACL surgery.
For 2020, Lotulelei’s base salary drops by $1.75M, but becomes fully guaranteed, with $2.5M in injury guarantees for 2021 added. Some benefit for both sides.
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) February 11, 2020
There’s no denying that Reader would be an upgrade on the field. The question is the contract he would require. He is reported to be worth in the 11-13 million dollar range, so that would be a tremendous price tag, one that Lotulelei already commands.
Reader was third in PFF’s run stop percentage last season at 10.9%. The closest Bills defensive tackle was Ed Oliver, who was 35th at 7.6%. Free agent Jordan Phillips was 74th at 4.1%, Lotulelei 77th at 3.8%, and in Harrison Phillips’ abbreviated season, he registered a 3.6%.
But what kind of falls by the wayside when discussing some of the defensive run game issues last season is that the primary issues were blown run fits and missed tackles. According to Football Outsiders (FO), Buffalo was fourth in ‘run stuff’ percentage, so they were making plays in the backfield, but they were also missing 11.9% of their tackles, which was the seventh-highest percentage in 2019.
The Bills ranked 26th in ‘second-level’ runs, according to Football Outsiders, which just measures the percentage of runs that got to the second level (between 5-10 yards). Buffalo was eighth-best in yards per attempt up the middle. Where teams had success in terms of yards per attempt was off-tackle. As you can see below, offenses attacked Leslie Frazier’s defensive unit on the edges.
According to Sports Info Solutions, the Bills’ defense saw the ninth-most gap runs last year, a run concept that generally stresses double teams at the point of attack and pulling offensive linemen. Defensively, you need linemen who recognize the concept, hold their ground, and occupy as the linebackers process and insert into their proper gaps with linemen on the move.
So, Oliver saw a lot of combos and double-teams in the Bills’ 4-3 over front against these concepts, with the nose tackles generally seeing single-man down blocks. Those down blocks on a guy like Reader are a lot more difficult because of his athleticism and power. He has the ability to trace over the top of down blocks and chase down runners, unlike Lotulelei, whose mobility is limited.
In the passing game, Reader would be an obvious boost at NT, seeing as how he racked up 35 total pressures, including three sacks. Among players for the Bills who played 50% of the snaps, rookie Oliver led with 29 total pressures, Jordan Phillips had 25, Lotulelei had 11 and Harrison Phillips had two.
Whether this report of the Bills’ interest comes to fruition or not, you know the organization has self-scouted their 2019 season and want to improve in some of these key areas. Only time will tell if Reader is one of the solutions.