Opening the Bills: Examining Buffalo’s DL ahead of 2023 NFL Draft

04/17/2023
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The Bills’ production on the defensive front was a tale of two halves. They were dominant up through week 11 when they visited the Lions for the Thanksgiving Day game, but after that, it was a pretty precipitous downfall. What happened? Well, we can easily point to the ACL injury suffered by future hall-of-famer Von Miller as the main culprit to this dropoff. If healthy, how much help do the Bills need? In my opinion, Brandon Beane should address IDL on day 1 or 2 of the draft and give Buffalo a possible replacement for Ed Oliver or depth after an aging DaQuan Jones and Jordan Phillips.

Just how bad was the plunge pre-Miller injury and post-Miller injury? Two stats stick out to me the most when examining that. First, I wrote about some of the crazy stats for Buffalo through the first nine weeks of the year, and the trio of Miller, Greg Rousseau, and Boogie Basham were all in the top 25 of Pro Football Focus’ (PFF) defensive grades. If you don’t like analytics, try this on for size. The Bills were averaging almost two turnovers per game through week 11, after that it dropped to just over one. Stealing a possession each game is a huge missing factor for a team.

Should the Bills use a top-100 pick to address the defensive line? That’s for the board and Beane to decide, but I hope to stuff you full of info in the next 1,000 words to give you a better understanding of where things sit entering the 2023 NFL Draft.

Addition:

The Bills didn’t bring any help along the defensive line from outside of the organization in free agency. Brandon Beane did, however, circle back late in the cycle and bring back a pair of his own in defensive tackle Jordan Phillips and defensive end Shaq Lawson. The key for Phillips is going to be health. The DT only played in 12 games last season, taking 346 defensive snaps. He was disruptive on the field in 2022 and finished top ten on the Bills in QB hits and sacks. Lawson started six games for the Bills a year ago, showing depth value after Von Miller went down. He ended the season with 3.5 sacks, good enough for fourth on the team.

Subtraction:

The Bills haven’t lost anyone in the front four during free agency, but if you look on Twitter, roughly half of Bills Mafia has traded Ed Oliver for everything from a 1st round pick to a broken bicycle that needs a peddle just to be moved out to the trash heap. The opinions on the former first-round pick are that varied.

Division:

You’ve already read this caveat several times, but it remains true… IF THE BILLS DL IS HEALTHY IT IS ELITE. The version of the Bills’ defensive line that had them 6-1 and clear Super Bowl favorites is top five, maybe even top three in the league. The rotation that limped into the Bengals playoff game without Jones and Miller would struggle to make a claim inside the top half of the league. For my projections within the division, I am going to take the writer’s liberty of going by where I expect them to be at full strength, so with that, my AFC East DL rankings for 2023 are:

  1. Bills
  2. Jets
  3. Dolphins
  4. Patriots

New York and Miami also have a lot of talent along the line, and New England has Matthew Judon, so none of those units should be slept on, but as I said above, if the Bills are healthy, they are top-flight.

League:

Just like with the division, a lot of the talk for league rankings depends on what version of Buffalo we are talking about. Again, I am going with the premise that they are fully healthy. In my opinion, a fully charged-up Bills’ DL is clearly top-five. I feel anyone in Bills Mafia can make a realistic argument that Buffalo is better up front than anyone not named after a gold rush. The 49ers have a plethora of riches up front that no team can match, but Buffalo is without question in the next group.

Future:

I will fully admit my bias here as a Michigan fan, but I would love for Buffalo to land Mazi Smith. I won’t dive too deep into him as he is tackled below, but if Buffalo could somehow draft him in the 2nd, that would be a massive get, literally and figuratively. I don’t, however, see him on the board that late and I’m not sure 27 is a great value. Moving south, I’d love for Beane to snag LSU DT Jaquelin Roy in the 4th. Roy was the 41st ranked prospect in his recruiting class, according to 247Sports composite rankings. I’ve seen many draft analysts compare his game to current Bill Jordan Phillips, but in my opinion, if Roy can reach the levels we expected with the Tigers, that should be his floor. I’d love the Bills to bring in the 6’3″ 305lb project and have him learn under Phillips, Jones, and Miller while he grows from a rotational piece to your starting DT.

“The Bills ignored my love for Tyler Shelvin, so they need to bring me Western Kentucky’s Brodric Martin. A simply massive human at 6050, 337 lbs, and arms longer than Groot’s (35”), his highlights show some quickness, lateral agility, and the ferocity you’re looking for. He has promise as a backup to DaQuan Jones for a couple years with the possibility of becoming a rotational starter or solid long-term depth. That would be great value from pick #205,” @LowBuffa.

“Bills fans are going to hate this BUT outside of MLB, DL may be the most pressing need on the Bills roster. The Bills have no DT currently under contract in 2024 and are on the precipice of starting A.J. Epenesa at DE opposite Greg Rousseau at the beginning of the 2023 season. There are some high profile players the Bills could look at here but one lesser known name that could be intriguing on Day 2 is Michigan’s Mazi Smith. He’s a true 1T DT that should be able to soak up blocks against any opponent. He has some work to do to become a consistent NFL player, but he was productive in college and is 6’3” 323lb making him an ideal candidate for the Bills Nickel Base Defense,” @UberHansen.

“Nolan Smith (1st round) The unpopular opinion for BillsMafia has been noted, that drafting another Edge Rusher in the first round could come with some scrutiny. Brandon Beane doesn’t have a great record in hitting on this position group thus far, but could rectify the opinion with Georgia End – Nolan Smith! Smith is an athletic freak who excels with multipurpose capabilities! Possessing stout run defending (equivalent to Jadeveon Clowney), while having a knack for coverage in zone, Smith also is fantastic in pursuit of ball carriers. While the sack production hasn’t been top end, Smith could assist the Bills is masking their linebacker issues, with allowing Von Miller to coach up his rushing upside. Pure talent is just that, and shouldn’t be overlooked,” @Chris_Chous.

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