Bills Roster Analysis: Lofton Exercise | Defensive Line


In an appearance on “The Tim Graham Show”, former Buffalo Bills great and hall of fame WR James Lofton talked about one simple exercise that former Chargers head coach Marty Schottenheimer used to ask from his staff after every season.

As a WR coach, Lofton was asked to rank every player on the team in one of three categories: 1.) He can win games for us; 2.) We can win with him; 3.) We need better. It was a simple exercise that showed the Schottenheimer the state of his roster after every season.

With that in mind, I’ll be writing a Bills roster analysis with the Cover 1 staff’s opinions about where each player fits on the list. The staff who participated in this exercise were Erik Turner, Aaron Quinn, Greg Tompsett, and myself. Each one of us ranked the entire roster on those three categories, and I’ll be breaking it down by positional groups. Since the defense still is the strength of this team, I’ll be starting there with the defensive line.

Jerry Hughes – DE

Can win games for us: 4 votes

Hughes just finished arguably his best season as a pro, recording 37 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, seven sacks, 18 QB hits, and three fumbles forced. Despite not reaching his career highs in sacks (10 in 2013 and 2014), his 74 QB pressures were good for third-best in the entire league among edge defenders, according to Pro Football Focus. He was able to put pressure on opposing QBs on 19.7 percent of his rushes, leading the edge defenders in the NFL with at least 200 defensive snaps.

He’s by far the most important piece in the team’s pass rush and equally effective stopping the run, a unanimous choice in the “can win games for you” group. The 30-year-old will be entering the last season of his deal, and GM Brandon Beane should work on an extension sooner rather than later.

Harrison Phillips – DT

Can win games for us: 1 vote (Greg)

Can win with him: 3 votes

“Horrible Harry” finished his rookie season playing in all 16 games and recording 35 tackles, four tackles for loss, two QB hits and one fumble recovery.

He played in a reserve role behind veterans Kyle Williams and Star Lotulelei and showed promise, being the only other defensive lineman on the team to receive a vote in the “can win games for us” category. Our consensus, though, is he showed the consistency to be a contributor on a winning team but needs to improve to reach the next level. With Kyle’s retirement,  the opportunity will be there.

Star Lotulelei – DT

Can win with him: 4 votes

The former Panther finished his first season as a Bill the same way he performed for most of his NFL career; he did his job, but it didn’t show on the stat sheet.

Lotulelei’s 17 tackles and one tackle for loss are far from impressive and don’t convince many people of his value to this defense. However, he was brought in to occupy blockers and free up linebackers, thereby improving the run defense. The Bills improved from 30th in the league in Football Outsiders’ run defense DVOA in 2017 to 14th in 2018. Star was a big part of it and is a consensus “can win with him” guy in our eyes.

Trent Murphy – DE

Can win with him: 4 votes

Another free agent who came in and contributed, earning consensus “can win with him” honors, finishing the year with 24 tackles, five tackles for loss, four sacks, nine QB hits, two fumbles forced, and one recovered.

Murphy battled injuries since the beginning of the training camp and missed three games because of them. When healthy,  he showed a nice pass rushing repertoire, and he can contribute to a winning team, especially playing opposite a dominant Jerry Hughes.

Shaq Lawson – DE

Can win with him: 4 votes

After failing to impress in his first few years as a pro and being considered a trade chip candidate by many, Shaq rebounded and had the best season of his young career in 2018.

He played in 14 games, starting six of them, and recorded 30 tackles, five tackles for loss, four sacks and 12 QB hits. Lawson was very active all season long, playing with a nonstop motor against the pass and run, shown by his five batted passes and numerous chases downfield in the running game — a very promising year by the former first-round pick. At this point, he can be counted as a very good run-stopping DE who plays fast and never gives up. At 24 years-old, he still can get better.

Jordan Phillips – DT

Can win with him: 4 votes

Added to the mix during the 2018 campaign, the former Dolphin was a nice surprise, quickly becoming an important piece in the DT rotation.

Phillips played in 12 games and finished the year with 19 tackles, two tackles for loss, three batted passes, and one fumble recovered. He showed the ability to dominate the line of scrimmage at times and is another very solid piece in a winning DL rotation. According to the player himself, the Bills are already trying to retain his services moving forward.

“We need better” group

DE Eddie Yarbrough, DT Robert Thomas, DT Kyle Peko.

These guys didn’t receive any vote for the two top groups and are merely depth pieces at best. Yarbrough had the most playing time between them but, despite always putting in the effort, never showed enough to be considered more than a reserve.


With one clear top guy and a rotation of five solid starting caliber players, this is a group the Bills should feel good about going forward. Ideally, at least one more top-tier guy would be welcomed, though. Maybe Harrison Phillips really can develop into this guy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Beane tries to add this player via free agency (possibly Jadeveon Clowney or Demarcus Lawrence) or early in the draft (e.g. Ed Oliver). This is an area where his Panthers always invested heavily, and another guy who can win games for you there will elevate this very good Buffalo defense to another level. Considering the Kyle Williams departure, maybe it’ll be a priority on the Bills GM’s to-do list.

Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports