After looking on the offensive side of the ball, this week’s piece will tackle my projection for the defensive unit. Similar to the offense, the Bills’ defense will have plenty of changes and battles for roster spots, particularly up front. Many of the younger players have yet to prove themselves, and ultimately some major decisions will be made by whoever has the better training camp and preseason. Nevertheless, here’s the way I see the roster shaping out on defense:
Defensive tackles: Kyle Williams, Star Lotulelei, Harrison Phillips, Tenny Palepoi
The first three names at this position are virtual locks, especially with the Bills investing heavily through free agency (Lotulelei) and a high draft pick (Phillips).
No surprise here... pic.twitter.com/FGshtII027— Cover 1 (@Cover1) June 2, 2018
Sean McDermott and Buffalo’s front office certainly wanted to make sure that they did didn’t get gashed by opposing running backs as frequently in 2018 as they did in 2017, and there’s no better place to start than in the trenches. I picked Palepoi for the other depth spot at defensive tackle over Adolphus Washington because I think the Bills have given Washington plenty of opportunities to succeed, and so far he’s done anything but live up to the billing. This offseason, with an increased emphasis on plugging the middle, I think he misses the cut.
Defensive ends: Jerry Hughes, Shaq Lawson, Trent Murphy, Eddie Yarbrough
The Bills are going to need much more from this unit in 2018, and the acquisition of Murphy is certainly a step in the right direction. Not only is Murphy a talented pass rusher in his own right, but he also should be able to take some of the heat off of Hughes on the other side of the field. Lawson missed most of last season with an injury and under-performed before that, so this will be a prove-it year for the former first-round selection. Yarbrough rounds out this unit as a solid depth piece who has shown flashes in both the regular season and preseason last year.
Linebacker: Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, Lorenzo Alexander, Tanner Vallejo, Ramon Humber, Julian Stanford
Another one of those positional groups that has been the topic of much conversation amongst the Buffalo faithful this offseason. After Preston Brown bolted to the Bengals, the Bills filled his spot with highly-touted rookie Tremaine Edmunds, who should immediately play a big role in this team’s defense.
Edmunds fires his gun and rips through the block before the center can even climb to him. pic.twitter.com/6jYp8ew7sk— Cover 1 (@Cover1) May 2, 2018
The fate of Buffalo’s front seven may fall on how quickly Edmunds can adapt to the NFL and the impact he can have. Milano and Alexander should take the other two starting slots, with Humber relegated to a backup and special teams role going forward. Vallejo and Stanford round out the other two roster spots because of their abilities on special teams, although any of the other three linebackers on Buffalo’s roster could make a run at those spots with a strong training camp.
Safety: Jordan Poyer, Micah Hyde, Siran Neal, Rafael Bush
The strongest starting group from last season returns intact with a couple of different backups. The Bills will be relying on Poyer and Hyde to return to their Pro Bowl forms from last season and spearhead the defense. Neal (a fifth-round pick) will be the primary backup, with veteran Rafael Bush rounding out the safety corps. Poyer and Hyde both missed time last year with injuries, and I think the Bills did a fine job of addressing the depth at this group.
Cornerbacks: Tre’Davious White, Vontae Davis, Phillip Gaines, Taron Johnson, Lafayette Pitts
Gone are E.J. Gaines and Shareece Wright, and in is almost a completely new group outside of star corner Tre’Davious White. Vontae Davis will take the other starting spot, and although he’s had some hiccups in recent years, his 112 career starts and 22 interceptions speak for themselves.
Gaines and Johnson should battle for the slot position, with the Bills certainly hoping that Johnson (a fourth-round pick) can impress over the summer. Gaines, who has played in 41 career games, is a nice depth piece that could earn playing time through his own strong play or via injury. I gave the last roster spot to Lafayette Pitts, although anyone from the group of Levi Wallace, Breon Borders, or Ryan Carter could certainly make a run at it.
Special teams: Stephen Hauschka, Reid Ferguson, Colton Schmidt
Unlike previous years, it doesn’t look as if there’ll be much competition for the starting kicking and punting jobs come September. The Bills are set to return the very strong unit of Hauschka, Ferguson, and Schmidt from last year.