The Bills are entering the second training camp with Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane calling the shots. Eyes will be on Josh Allen’s progression, but the defense should be a sight to see. Just two offseasons is all it took for the Bills to collect a talented group featuring Tre’Davious White, Tremaine Edmunds, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Matt Milano and Vontae Davis.
McDermott and Frazier went to work, signing the talented safety tandem to long-term deals before selecting Tre’Davious White in the first round and trading for E.J. Gaines.
While the Bills’ roster featured quality young players, they struggled with consistency. Buffalo finished the season ranked 18th in points allowed (359) and 26th in total yards allowed (5,682). They allowed the second-fewest passing touchdowns in the NFL (14) but finished 20th in passing yards allowed (3,688), while their 14 interceptions were eighth-most.
While Buffalo’s defense was opportunistic against the pass, thanks to their new-look secondary that combined to intercept 17 of the team’s 18 picks and recover five of their seven fumble recoveries, opponents didn’t find a challenge running the ball. The Bills ranked 29th in run defense (1,994 rushing yards allowed) and allowed the most rushing touchdowns in the league (22).
Statistics don’t tell the full story of Buffalo’s unimpressive defensive rankings. A loss to the Jets on Thursday Night Football sent the Bills into a downward spiral. They were obliterated by the Saints before falling to the Chargers in the now-infamous five-interception game by Nathan Peterman. In those three games, Buffalo’s defense gave up 1,242 yards and 135 points.
Rip the band-aid off
After losing to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Wildcard Round, the Bills knew that the defense had to be blown up and rebuilt.
“The game really starts up front, philosophically, for us on both sides of the ball,” McDermott said. “Down the middle in particular you want to be strong and powerful. . . . You saw some of our issues last year in the run game on defense, so that has been a major emphasis on defense this year as well.”
They began by signing former Carolina Panthers DT Star Lotulelei to a five-year, $50 million contract and former Washington defensive end Trent Murphy to a three-year, $21 million deal in order to strengthen the team’s run defense and add some juice to a pass rush that notched only 27 sacks in 2017.
Murphy played 47 games in four years for Washington, tallying 111 tackles, 15 sacks, two pass breakups and six forced fumbles. The former No. 47 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft had a breakout season in 2016, notching nine sacks and generating 55 quarterback pressures.
DE Trent Murphy was ranked 9th in run stop percentage (6.3%), which included 21 solo tackles and 15 run stops in 2016
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) March 20, 2018
Lotulelei is a player McDermott is very familiar with, having coached the former first-rounder during his tenure as the Panthers’ defensive coordinator. He won’t offer much as a pass rusher, and his price tag seems steep for a player that’s made 150 tackles in 76 career games.
Buffalo re-signed Kyle Williams before drafting Stanford star Harrison Phillips in the third-round of the 2018 NFL draft. Phillips is similar to Williams in terms of body type but doesn’t have the quickness of the veteran. The former Cardinal had a heck of a finish to his collegiate career, notching 148 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and one pass breakup in his final two years.
Talent on Talent
Buffalo’s leading tackler, middle linebacker Preston Brown, signed with the Bengals, while E.J. Gaines left to sign with the Browns. The Bills knew they had a quality player in Matt Milano already on the roster at linebacker.
Milano was a fifth-round draft pick in 2017 but quickly earned a starting job before finishing the season with 43 tackles, three tackles for loss, one interception, two pass breakups and one fumble recovery that was returned for a score. He added six tackles and one forced fumble on special teams. The former Boston College safety convert believes that Buffalo’s defense can finish in the top-five.
“Last year I was just getting my feet underneath me,” said Milano. “But with the addition of a couple new guys and with the experience of just learning the defense last year, that was our first year running that defense, so I think our goal is top five.”
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) March 6, 2018
Buffalo bolstered the cornerback position also, signing Vontae Davis and Phillip Gaines before drafting Taron Johnson to play with Tre’Davious White, the team’s first-round draft pick from one year ago.
White, who is just 23 years old, looks like a budding star after his stellar rookie season, in which he racked up 69 tackles, four interceptions and 18 pass breakups.
The former LSU star finishes the year ranked third among all cornerbacks with his elite overall grade, and he was as reliable a corner as there was all season. He led all corners with 1,093 defensive snaps played, and he finished 13 games with a grade of at least 70.0. Opposing quarterbacks had just a 68.2 passer rating when targeting White in coverage, and he was directly responsible for an incompletion (whether it be via pass breakup, interception or proximity in coverage) on 23.4 percent of the targets into his coverage, well over the league average of 15.0 percent.
Rookies with big roles
Brandon Beane traded up to select Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, a 6-foot-5, 250-pounder that runs a 4.50 40-yard dash at 20 years old. He notched 213 tackles, 33 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, one interception, five pass breakups and three forced fumbles while a Hokie.
His size and physical skillset provide Edmunds with the versatility to potentially fit in at all three linebacker positions, which makes him an extremely valuable asset. Coach McDermott said this about the team’s newest linebacker shortly after the selection.
“He’s a versatile athlete,” McDermott said. “He’s got size (6-foot-5, 250 pounds), length. He’s played inside, he’s played outside as well. You know, he’s played on the line of scrimmage, off the line of scrimmage. So some of that flexibility, versatility, whatever word you want to use, is want attracted us to him. … So we were real happy with what we did.”
The Bills went defense again in the fifth round, selecting Jacksonville State’s Siran Neal, a jack-of-all-trades who filled in at safety, cornerback and linebacker. The 6-foot, 206-pound former South Carolina Gamecock played safety for two seasons before switching to linebacker as a junior and recorded 80 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, one interception and four pass breakups that year. In 2017 he moved to cornerback, where he tallied 39 tackles, one pick, and broke up 11 passes.
At the very least, Neal provides Buffalo with an athletic defender (4.56 40-yard dash, 40.5-inch vertical jump at the combine) who can play special teams. With Poyer and Hyde cemented into their starting safety positions, Neal figures to be a player that can rotate in based on matchups.
Pass rush, turnover rate are question marks
The Bills paid Trent Murphy to boost their pass rush, but the team needs someone else to step up and make an impact, too. 27 sacks isn’t acceptable with players at the talent level of Jerry Hughes or Shaq Lawson, who combined for just eight sacks and 16 QB hits last season. The team signed Owa Odighizuwa and Terrence Fede to compete with Eddie Yarbrough and Trent Murphy. Lawson has dealt with injuries since being taken in the first round but says he’s healthy as he prepares for his third pro season.
Yarbrough made plays when called upon, and Lorenzo Alexander can still make an impact as a subpackage rusher.
Nonetheless, this Bills defense is coming together, though the offense will undoubtedly receive the bulk of analysis thanks to Josh Allen’s presence. But, with players like Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Tre’Davious White, Vontae Davis, Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, Jerry Hughes, Kyle Williams, etc., this should be a fun team to watch.
Brandon Beane is growing excited, but in his typical, keep it close to the vest style, he’s not done; far from it.
“As a whole, I like where we’re at,” Beane said. “It’s April. This is a new year. But hopefully, fans believe in what we’re doing here as a group, from Terry, Kim, Sean and I and everybody else, and that we have it going in the right direction.
“But we have not arrived by any means.”