In 2020, Buffalo Bills nose tackle Star Lotulelei decided to opt out of the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After sitting out for the season and watching the Bills make it to the AFC championship game, there were rumors and worries that Lotulelei might retire. Beyond the unfounded rumors, there were more legitimate concerns as to what kind of shape he would be in to play a whole season after taking a year off.
Lotulelei has been a bit of a polarizing figure for Bills fans, as many feel he was overpaid when brought in to Buffalo, given his style of play is more suited for a style of football that no longer exists. Some defended Lotulelei and his impact in both the run and pass game, and used his absence in 2020, along with the Bills’ slow start on defense, to show how important he was to this team.
At a press conference during training camp, Lotulelei was asked about his preparation for the season after a year off.
“Yeah, it’s tough sitting out a year. It’s hard, playing a year, having an offseason, and then coming back, you can never be prepared,” he said. “You can run, you can lift, and you can train yourself, but you can’t really train yourself for football unless you’re playing football.
“So taking a year off from that, trying to get my legs back under me, as far as running around, you know for those six, seven, eight seconds, all out and then you take a little break, you know, you can’t really simulate football, so just again that opportunity of being back into it, and getting my legs back under me, stuff like that.”
Some might say that true, two-gapping nose tackles are a thing of the past, what with the NFL evolving to a more spread passing game. However, an article by PFF’s Eric Eager showed an interesting analysis that as more teams start to play the pass first and the run second by playing more nickel defense, the value of a two-gapping nose tackle becomes higher, as it allows defensive coordinators to still play lighter in the box, but still be sound from a gap integrity standpoint in run defense.
The Bills, who played 90% of their defensive snaps in nickel defense in 2020, certainly recognized the value of someone like Lotulelei helping them maintain gap integrity in both the run and the pass game. Lotulelei is a player who is asked to stay out of the spotlight on the field so he can let others shine. He takes on double teams to allow other defensive linemen to get pressures, sacks, and tip balls for INTs.
What he does on the football field is rarely recognized on the broadcast, and not mentioned in the stat sheet. Through the first four games of the 2021 season, Lotulelei has been doing exactly that, and then some. He’s taken his game to another level, and is becoming a player that more people are noticing. He’s a player who is rushing the passer extremely well, and bringing pressure on a regular basis. Lotulelei is currently at the top of PFF’s pass-rush productivity metric for defensive tackles across the entire NFL. His pressures have been consistent, and he remains a force in the run game, as according to PFF, Lotulelei currently has the second-highest run-stop percentage in the NFL (16.7%).
He is playing the best football of his career, and it’s all coming after a year off.
While based on different circumstances, Trent WIlliams also took a year off late in his career. Williams decided to take a year off in 2019 to force his way out of the Washington Football Team. Washington acquiesced, trading Williams to the 49ers for a 2020 fifth round pick and a 2021 third round pick. Many, understandably so, believed Williams may not be the same player he was in Washington. After a year away from the game, it was difficult to project what he would be able to bring to an NFL offense. Coming back in 2020 for the San Francisco 49ers, Williams became the same stalwart at left tackle as he had been during his Washington tenure.
The way that both of these players have taken a year off from the game, come back, and have played exceptionally well begs the question: will taking a year off in the mid-to-late stages of your NFL tenure be a benefit to the player?
The actual answer likely lies with each individual player, their physical and athletic abilities, and their relationship to the game itself. That being said, it’s an intriguing idea, particularly for linemen, who take a bigger beating than anyone else on the field, and carry more weight on their bodies than other players, it may be that taking a year off to let their bodies rest is a greater benefit than we realize. There would certainly need to be more studies and a larger sample size to come to any strong conclusions, but with two players doing this and excelling, it’s worth exploring.
Regardless, Lotulelei’s late career resurgence has been hugely beneficial to the Bills’ defensive line, and to the defense as a whole. The run defense has improved tremendously (Buffalo’s currently fourth in the league against the run), the pass rush has been making strides, and benefits from Lotulelei’s seemingly improbable development as an individual pass rusher himself.
Lotulelei, who did not play in either of the Bills games against the Chiefs in 2020, will have to bring that same strong play and energy along with the rest of the Bills defensive line, to Kansas City when they face Patrick Mahomes on Sunday Night Football.