Through two seasons, Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Ed Oliver has left fans wanting more. Throughout his collegiate career at Houston, Oliver was always the best player on the field and general manager Brandon Beane envisioned the 2017 Outland Trophy winner bringing that juice to the Bills’ defense. While Oliver has been a good, but not great player thus far, all signs point to the 23-year old breaking out in 2021 and taking Buffalo’s defense to the next level.
Unreasonably hyped as the second coming of Aaron Donald – a once-in-a-generation talent that no prospect should have the burden of being compared to – Oliver joined the Bills as a top-10 draft pick with humongous expectations that he’d almost certainly never live up to.
Undersized, but explosive and powerful, Oliver was an absolute terror for opposing offenses during his three years with the Cougars. He demoralized opposing offensive linemen on a weekly basis, finishing his career with 192 tackles, 53 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks and five forced fumbles in three seasons. After declaring for the draft, he impressed at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine, posting a 36-inch vertical leap and a 10-foot broad jump at 6-foot-1, 287-pounds, before running a 4.71-second 40-yard dash at his pro day.
The Bills made Oliver the No. 9 overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft and while he didn’t take over games right away like many illogically believed he would, his overall play was solid. As a rookie, he notched 43 tackles, five tackles for loss and five sacks, adding another two pass breakups and one forced fumble. He appeared in all 16 games, making seven starts. While certainly not an incredible season by any means, Oliver had flashes of dominance (see Thanksgiving vs. Dallas) and stretches of excellent play where he displayed the athleticism and ability that warranted a top-10 draft pick.
Entering 2020, things were looking bright for Oliver. However, when fellow defensive tackle Star Lotulelei opted out due to COVID-19, his role changed drastically and resulted in some struggles. Oliver was forced into playing nose tackle early in the season, a role that completely negated everything that makes him special as a player.
Instead of being asked to knife between guards and tackles in one-on-one matchups, Oliver was now tasked with using his small frame to eat up double teams and hold the point of attack. According to Sports Info Solutions, Oliver played head up over the center in a zero-technique, or aligned between the center and guard in a one-technique alignment on 129 of his defensive snaps.
As a result, not only did Oliver struggle, but those issues trickled down throughout the defense as a whole. Buffalo’s defense ranked 20th against the run, surrendering 123.2 yards per game on the ground while opposing offenses averaged 4.6 yards-per-carry, the seventh-highest total in the league. 30.2-percent of the rushing attempts they faced resulted in a first down, the highest mark in the NFL.
Oliver was graded as Pro Football Focus’ worst run defender among defensive tackles that played at least 50-percent of their team’s defensive snaps. Surprisingly, Oliver still managed to prove disruptive despite the increased double teams he faced. He generated 35 total quarterback pressures, making him the only defensive tackle from that 2019 draft class to post at least 30 pressures in each of his first two seasons.
Oliver regressed statistically from 2019 to 2020, as he totaled 33 tackles, six tackles for loss, three sacks, three pass breakups and one forced fumble in his 16 starts. But playing out of position for the majority of the season, Oliver was at a disadvantage nearly every time he lined up on the field. Now, some may argue that there are no excuses for top-10 picks, and the NFL lives by the “next man up” mentality, which is true. And Oliver played about as well as he could given his lack of size to play his new position. But now looking ahead to the 2021 season, everything is in place for Ed Oliver to become that ferocious pass rusher he was at Houston.
Although Oliver didn’t improve from a statistical standpoint in his second year, Beane expressed confidence in his young defensive tackle, acknowledging the number of double teams he faced, while minimizing his low sack totals.
“Ed’s playing really well, and if people want to just look at sack numbers, he doesn’t have those,” General Manager Brandon Beane said in his assessment of Oliver’s play last year. “But he impacts the game, not only the pass game, but the run game, and he’s growing, he’s learning. But at the end of the day, the sacks will come, I think, as he continues to learn the game and learn how people are playing him and blocking him. Ed faces a lot of doubles, too, so it’s not the easiest road for him. But I thought he definitely took a step up from Year One to Year Two. He might have started slow, this year but I thought three-quarters of the year he played really well and helped our defense.”
Lotulelei is back in the mix and will slide back into his role as the team’s nose tackle while Harrison Phillips should also fight for playing time there. With two solid players now in the mix at the one-technique, Oliver won’t be forced to play out of position again unless injury strikes. At the team’s mandatory minicamp, Lotulelei spoke about Oliver’s play in 2020 and gave credit to his teammate for playing with the same level of energy that he did when the two lined up next to each other in 2019.
“Ed, I thought he played well last year, he was dealing with a lot more double teams than he did his rookie year, but I feel like he played well,” Loutlelei said in a video conference during Buffalo’s mandatory minicamp. “He always goes hard, that’s one thing you know you’re gonna get from Ed, he goes 100-percent every time he’s on the field. I love watching Ed play, he’s like a missile out there.”
When Oliver is on, he’s on. He plays to the whistle on every snap and his unique blend of power, athleticism and quickness stand out when watching him on film. His whole game is about splitting blocks and getting upfield, which he should be able to do comfortably in his third year.
During minicamp, head coach Sean McDermott bluntly stated that it’s time for Oliver to put it all together and emerge as a consistent playmaker.
“It’s to affect the game,” McDermott said of his expectations for Oliver. “He’s a top pick. He’s here to affect the quarterback, affect the game, and this will be an opportunity for him to develop into a consistent performer for us. I really appreciate the way he’s worked, I think his offseason to this point has put him in position to do what I just mentioned, but again the work remains, and there’s a lot of work to be done.”
There certainly is a lot of work for Oliver to put in. He needs to get better with his counter moves, as he can struggle to redirect with power or a bullrush if his initial speed rush is negated by an offensive lineman. Oliver is capable of playing with power, but it’s something he needs to work into his repertoire on a more regular basis. Developing second, or even third moves in a sequence is a common issue for many young defensive linemen, who often relied on a single move to defeat their competition in college, and even sometimes early in their NFL careers. Defensive line coach Eric Washington and coordinator Leslie Frazier obviously know that speed and quickness are Oliver’s bread and butter, and should be able to put him in positions to win with that ability consistently this season.
It isn’t a secret that Oliver is high up on just about everybody’s list of breakout candidates for Buffalo’s 2021 season and he surely knows this is a “put up or shut up” year in the eyes of most fans and analysts.
Oliver has been good, but in order to justify his status as a top-10 draft pick, he needs to be great. The Bills’ defense held them back quite a bit last season, and if the team hopes to compete for a Super Bowl this year, Oliver’s flashes of dominance just won’t be enough. They need consistent disruption out of their young playmaker and with a bolstered cast of talent surrounding him, I think this is the year we see Oliver elevate himself into the upper echelon of the NFL’s interior pass rushers.