After the end of the 2018 NFL season, the second Bills season led by head coach Sean McDermott and the first one with quarterback Josh Allen under center, I decided to analyze the team’s under-construction roster. The tool selected was the “Lofton Exercise”, a simple yet very constructive drill that former Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer used to ask from his staff after every season. Former Bills great and Hall of Fame wide receiver James Lofton was part of that staff and revealed the exercise in an appearance on “The Tim Graham Show”.
It consists of ranking the players in three possible groups: 1) Can win games for you; 2) Can win with him; and 3) Need better. The coaches gave Schottenheimer a good idea about where they stood in terms of their roster quality.
After two offseasons with GM Brandon Beane wheeling and dealing, another playoff appearance, and with the most hyped Bills team in a long time preparing for the start of the 2020 season, it’s time for a new roster evaluation. Let’s look at the positional groups and compare how this team matches up against the 2018 6-10 squad and, most importantly, what can we really expect from this group going forward.
Some quick notes before we start: unlike in the previous installment of the series, I’m the only one ranking the players in their respective groups. I’m curious to hear from you if you agree or disagree with my picks. Also, I won’t be putting the rookies in any of the three groups because we really can’t know anything without watching them play a single snap in the NFL. Instead, I’m writing a “Rookie Watch” section below with my opinions on those players.
So, without further ado, let’s start the drill with the defensive line, possibly the deepest group on this roster:
Can win games for you
Jerry Hughes – DE
Despite struggling to finish his rushes with sacks too often, Jerry Hughes is a premier pass rusher in this league, shown by his team-leading 54 total pressures (seven sacks, seven QB hits, and 40 QB hurries) in 17 games (playoffs included), according to Pro Football Focus.
4 tackles and 3 sacks.— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) January 14, 2020
Jerry Hughes had a day back home in Houston. pic.twitter.com/GGuiP3TYbx
Speaking of playoffs, back in his home state, Hughes had his best performance of the year. He terrorized Texans franchise LT Laremy Tunsil, consistently beating him on his way to a monster performance. The long-time Bill finished the game with three sacks plus a QB hit. Opposing offenses consistently need to send help to his side, allowing the rest of the Bills DL one-on-one opportunities. He also evolved as a run stopper and is reliable setting the edge. Hughes is the key cog in this group.
Ed Oliver – DT
Second-year DT Ed Oliver showed great progress throughout his rookie season and should emerge as a force in 2020. After a slow start and losing his starting spot to now-departed Jordan Phillips, the former Houston Cougar learned his lesson and started to play more through the schemes instead of freelancing too much. The results were visible, with the rookie finishing the season (playoffs included) with 38 tackles (just two missed), 23 run stops, six sacks, five QB hits, 20 QB hurries, two passes defended, and one fumble forced.
He should be back with the starters and there’s no reason to not expect another jump in productivity from the former first-round pick. Jordan Phillips snaps are available to the best performer and Oliver should have the first crack at them, at least after his potential suspension stemming from a DWI arrest in May.
Mario Addison – DE
The free agent pickup is a savvy veteran who’s very familiar with Sean McDermott’s defensive schemes. He offers leadership and a vast repertoire rushing the passer, having all the tools to become an upgrade over Trent Murphy and former Bill Shaq Lawson.
Addison is another guy that was used all over the place along the DL. Sometimes in a two point, sometimes w his hand in the dirt. Just another chess piece for Frazier and McDermott.— Cover 1 (@Cover1) March 18, 2020
At times on 3rd and long he bumped inside. https://t.co/8Fc15tfIVR
The former Panther produced 11 sacks, six QB hits, 32 QB hurries, and 16 run stops in 2019, according to PFF. He can set the edge on run downs, but he can also be moved along the line in clear passing downs, as we got used to see Lorenzo Alexander doing in Buffalo.
Addison isn’t getting any younger, but Buffalo, with his former coach and in well-known schemes, is the perfect fit to prolong his career playing at a high level.
Can win with him
Harrison Phillips – DT
The former third-round pick started his second NFL season with three strong showings, recording three tackles, a half sack, two passes defended and one QB hit in just 77 snaps, before having it cut short by a torn ACL.
Strong play at the POA by Murphy, but watch Harrison Phillips.— Cover 1 (@Cover1) December 3, 2018
Leads with his hands, recognizes the down block/guard pulling, a little push-pull to shed then chases the guard flat down the LOS for the tackle.@DLineVids pic.twitter.com/dKdtDjx6hi
Phillips is very strong, smart, and has the tools to succeed as the team’s main nose tackle. If he can pick up where he left off, it’s going to be a matter of time before he takes Star Lotulelei’s starting spot.
Vernon Butler – DT
Butler is another former Panther headed to Buffalo. He didn’t perform as expected when Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane were in Carolina. However, his 2019 season was impressive, with six sacks, four QB hits, six QB hurries, and 20 run stops. Butler has potential to leapfrog into the “Can win games for you” group, but will he be consistent enough?
Quinton Jefferson – DE/DT
The former Seahawk could open some eyes in Buffalo. He’s a huge wildcard in this group, in my opinion, especially because of his versatility. With Hughes and Addison more familiar with the right defensive end spot, Jefferson may find opportunities to play on the left side, especially on early downs, moving inside in clear passing situations.
One of my top FA targets for the Bills - DL Quinton Jefferson pic.twitter.com/8a9WDzHUE4— Cover 1 (@Cover1) March 15, 2020
With playing time, he showed that he can produce. Last season, Jefferson amassed 30 QB hurries along with six sacks, eight QB hits, three passes defended, and 19 run stops. Like Butler and Phillips, he’s a guy who might jump into the top group if given enough opportunities.
Trent Murphy – DE
Yes, Murphy is still on the roster despite all the new additions and his considerable cap savings if cut ($8,025,000). The fact is that he finished 2019 strong, with nine tackles (three for loss) and four sacks in the last two games (week 17 vs. Jets and wildcard game vs. Texans).
There’s no guarantee he’ll make the roster in 2020, but in Murphy the team has a solid veteran with very good value for a productive rotation. He’s not going to play up to the first tier standards, but he’s a guy who you definitely can win with.
Star Lotulelei – DT, Darryl Johnson – DE, Vincent Taylor – DT, Jonathan Woodard – DE, Mike Love – DE, Bryan Cox Jr. – DE.
The “highlight” of this group is the presence of Star Lotulelei. Yes, he’s a starter and offers some value with his scheme knowledge and sound execution of his role. However, Star’s biggest contribution to this team is as a veteran presence and coach on the field. There’s a reason to have him playing on only about 40% of the snaps, and this number should decrease in 2020 with the number of options this roster has right now. I can understand if people think he’s on the next tier up, but I think he’s way closer to the ‘need better’ group.
Star and Murphy create a mess inside that pushes the center back.— Cover 1 (@Cover1) July 5, 2019
But watch Zo set the edge against Gronk! pic.twitter.com/va8NPWnqPJ
The other guys in this group are long-shots to contribute on any consistent basis. Darryl Johnson has shown flashes but will need to step up his game if he wants to make the roster in 2020. I don’t expect a lot from the other guys, despite liking what I’ve seen from Vincent Taylor in limited opportunities. The interior DL is simply too crowded to expect much from him.
A.J. Epenesa – DE
This guy could find himself in the top group sooner rather than later; that’s how good of a football player the Bills’ second round pick is.
Poor workouts in shorts made the former Iowa standout fall into Buffalo’s lap, but we can’t ignore the tape. Epenesa knows how to rush the passer. There’s a reason he was widely recognized as the second-best DE prospect in the draft, only behind Chase Young. With 19 run stops, 13 sacks, 14 QB hits, 31 QB hurries, and three batted passes in 2019, he dominated the competition in college and should be ready for the next level.
Although this unusual offseason, paired with all the veteran options available on the roster, might result in fewer opportunities early on, I wouldn’t be surprised if Epenesa plays his way into a major role as the team’s starting left defensive end. He definitely could become a tier-one contributor in 2020.
This is a deep and reliable group that should produce week-in and week-out. There’s a lot of talent and competition there, with no space for under-performing players. Even if age might be a red flag for Hughes and Addison as “can win games for you” guys, there’s potential in the second group to emerge as top-tier guys, too. The absolute floor here is a seven-man rotation of guys who you can win with. That’s not bad, especially considering how strong the whole defensive group is.
- Can win games for you: 1 (Hughes)
- Can win with: 5 (Murphy, Lotulelei, Lawson, Harrison and Jordan Phillips)
- Need better: 3 (nine total D-linemen at the season’s end)
- Can win games for you: 3
- Can win with: 4
- Need better: 2 max (if carrying nine D-linemen on final roster)