Bills Promote vs. Pay: How should Buffalo address DE in 2023 NFL Free Agency?

03/12/2023
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The Buffalo Bills’ defense continued to be dominant despite a pair of frustrating exits in the last two postseasons. The group allowed the sixth-fewest yards per game at 319.1, and the second-fewest points per game, at 17.9. They were third in Football Outsider’s DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) Run Defense rankings with a score of -19.7% and fourth overall with a cumulative score of -11%. Buffalo allowed the fifth-fewest rushing yards per game at 104.6. Looking specifically at EDGE or pass rusher, they finished fifth in Pro Football Focus’ (PFF) pressure grade at 78.8. They were tied for 13th in sacks per game at 2.5.

The Bills’ defense could have a lot of moving parts this offseason, and EDGE may not pop off the screen as a need, but finding someone to add to Greg Rousseau, Boogie Basham, and AJ Epenesa while you wait for Von Miller to return from an ACL is something Brandon Beane needs to address.

For this exercise, we will look at bringing back Shaq Lawson, signing Justin Houston or Zach Allen, plus the minimal action of Kingsley Jonathan. These four players give us a wide range of production vs. contract to dissect as we head to our final verdict of PROMOTE vs. PAY on the edge of the Bills’ defensive line.

Snaps:

Let’s start all these categories with the player you know the most former Bills’ defensive end Shaq Lawson. The former first-round pick played 543 defensive snaps for Buffalo in 2022. That was 48% of snaps with his missing two weeks. Houston missed four games for the Ravens last year but still played in 44% or 420 snaps. Zach Allen was a snap monster for Arizona a season ago. He took the field for 639 defensive snaps despite missing five weeks. For the games Allen was active in, he played 79% of snaps. Between his time with the Bears and Bills, Jonathan played 63 defensive snaps, or 29% of the games he was active.

Counting Stats:

Lawson filled the boxscore stats in 2022 with 31 tackles, six tackles for a loss, nine hits, and 3.5 sacks. The Bills’ edge also only missed 6.3% of his tackles, which was 10th best among DE that played at least 20% of their teams’ stats. We will use that 20% bar for all the guys in these two statistical categories. Houston had 21 tackles, seven for a loss, 17 hits, and 9.5 sacks for Baltimore. He missed 41.2% of tackles, which was 128th of 131 qualified EDGE rushers. Allen led our group with 47 tackles, ten tackles for a loss, 20 hits, and added 5.5 sacks. The former Cardinal had a 5.1% missed tackle rate, good enough for eighth. Jonathan had five tackles and one tackle for a loss last season. He didn’t miss a tackle, but remember he only played 63 defensive snaps.

Analytics:

Let’s peel back the layers of advanced stats for these four starting with Pro Football Reference’s system they call “AV” which stands for “approximate value” (“this is our attempt to put a single number on each player season since 1960 so that we can (very approximately) compare across years and positions”). Here, they grade Lawson a 4, Houston a 2, Allen a 5, and Kingsley gets a 0.

Flipping back to PFF, Lawson ranked 70th out of 131 in defensive grade with a 64.2, a 62.3 was 70th in pass rush grade. PFF credits him with 14 stops (tackles that constitute a “failure” for the offense) ranking 85th overall. Houston ranked 25th in defensive grade, with a 77.1, a 75.4 was 23rd in pass rush. His 16 stops slot him in 73rd. Allen ranked 35th in defensive grade, with a 72.7, a 71.6 in pass rush came in 35th. The 21 stops notch him just inside the top 50. Jonathan is credited with a pair of stops, a defensive grade of 56.1, and a pass rush grade of 49.2.

Attached just below are the PFF game-by-game grades for each player in 2022.

Shaq Lawson:

Justin Houston:

Zach Allen:

Kingsley Jonathan:

Contract:

To open up the contract talk, we will start with the guys who have a “market value” on Spotrac.com. Houston is listed with a market value of $5.3M AAV on a two-year, $10.7M contract. Allen comes in with a market value of $9.3M AAV on a three-year, $27.9M contract. Lawson doesn’t have a Spotrac market value, but is listed with a $2.3M valuation, according to Over The Cap. As for Kingsley Jonathan, per Spotrac, he signed a two-year contract with the Bills, including an average annual salary of just under $900,000. In 2023, Jonathan will earn a base salary of $870,000 and a signing bonus of $3,500, while carrying a cap hit of $871,750 and a dead cap value of $3,500.

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Vorse’s Verdict:

I’m going to start my verdict with this qualifier each and every time… We all know the Bills aren’t flush with cash entering 2023. Even if they pull out most of their “cap coupons” (as our cap guru, Greg Tompsett, calls contract restructures), they are still looking at $40M to $50M to work with before signing or drafting anyone. That said, we know the Bills can not start 2023 with Kinglsey Jonathan as their second-best option in the two-deep at EDGE.

They need to make a move to sign at least one more player aside from Rousseau, Basham, and Epenesa. I would love to see them upgrade the position massively again this offseason by adding a guy like Allen, but taking on another massive contract doesn’t seem plausible. I do, however, think they could fit Houston onto the team at $5M or so and play with the numbers to make it work short-term. If they can do this, and he can join Von Miller in leading some younger talent, the Bills would be sitting pretty on edge.

If they can not get a deal like that done with a player like Houston, circling back and calling Shaq again is certainly not the worst option ever.

 

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