What can we expect from the revamped Bills defensive line?

03/21/2020
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With defensive end Shaq Lawson and defensive tackle Jordan Phillips both enjoying career years, it was widely expected that General Manager Brandon Beane wouldn’t be inclined to overpay to keep their services for 2020 and beyond. After all, we’re talking about guys who, despite obviously being key contributors to the team’s defensive success, played 50.1- and 52.7-percent of the available snaps, respectively.

With in-house starters already set in Trent Murphy and Ed Oliver, Beane went to the market in search for possible better value deals and may have found them in three interesting veteran pieces: former Carolina Panthers Mario Addison and Vernon Butler, and former Seattle Seahawks Swiss Army knife Quinton Jefferson, while spending the same amount of money that would have been necessary to keep the two former Bills in Buffalo.

Adding Addison instead of keeping Shaq was a pretty smart move by Beane, at least short-term. But how about Jefferson and Butler’s arrivals — can they replace what Jordan Phillips brought to the table? How are they going to fit in the Bills’ schemes, role-wise? Let’s digg it (pun intended):

What do they bring to the table?

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Butler is a former first-round selection who never lived up to expectations, at least until last year. Playing under new Bills defensive line coach Eric Washington in Carolina, he finally played up to his potential, recording career highs in sacks (six), QB hits (four) and run stops (20), while playing on 45.4% of his team’s defensive snaps (439/968), according to Pro Football Focus. His number of stops matches evenly with Phillips, who played 143 more snaps. Phillips also produced 9.5 sacks, six QB hits and 13 QB hurries, against six-four-six by Butler. If you take into consideration the financial commitment made, plus Ed Oliver’s likely increase in snaps and production, Butler by himself is a rock solid addition as a backup 3-tech defensive tackle.

Beane didn’t stop there, though. With his financial flexibility he added another piece to help the defensive line, Quinton Jefferson from Seattle. Listed as a defensive end in the Seahawks’ schemes, the 6-foot-4 and 291-pound player is probably better-suited to the same 3-tech position as Oliver and Butler in Head Coach Sean McDermott’s scheme.

However, he has experience lining up at all positions along the line, where he produced six sacks, eight QB hits, 30 (!) QB hurries, and 19 run stops in 2019. He’s a PFF favorite, earning a 20.2 overall grade while playing on 63.2% of his team’s defensive snaps (659/1043).

How will they be utilized by McDermott and Frazier?

Looking at the numbers, it’s hard to criticize Beane’s strategy. Addison and Jefferson are two very reliable players, and Butler, just like Shaq and Phillips, is coming from a breakout season in a contract year. The former Panthers are familiar with the coaches and the schemes, and Jefferson is so versatile that he can succeed in any scheme. It’s hard to believe that McDermott and Frazier won’t be able to maximize his potential.

With Jerry Hughes just extended and coming off of one of his best games as a Bill in the playoffs against the Texans (four tackles, three sacks, four QB hits), he’s a lock at his natural right defensive end spot. Star Lotulelei is the nose tackle, with Harrison Phillips coming back from injury and attempting to recapture his 2019 form and battle for this spot. At 3-tech, Ed Oliver is expected to have a jump in playing time and production, with Vernon Butler coming in as the main backup there. Then things start to become a little bit tougher to preview.

Addison comes to Buffalo after starting every game in the last three years for the Panthers. He’s a veteran leader and a productive pass rusher, and I expect him to start opposite Hughes. However, just like the Bills veteran, Addison’s more adept at playing on the right side (81.5% of the snaps there in 2019). They surely will replace each other on the right when needing a breather, but it’s fair to expect one of them rushing from the left side more often in 2020.

Trent Murphy, the starting left defensive end in 2019, is on the roster, but with all of the roster additions and his $8M in savings if cut, his position with the team is in danger. He could be a trade candidate or even get cut, especially if second-year pass rusher Darryl Johnson, a rotational guy in 2019, impresses in camp. Until this happens, Murphy should be accounting for some snaps on the left side.

Another wrinkle that should be considered is Jefferson’s ability to play left defensive end. He can do it, and I can see him playing the position quite a lot for the Bills, especially when in base 4-3-under and if they move on from Murphy. His presence, alongside Addison’s, also provides alternatives on clear passing situations. Lorenzo Alexander’s retirement opened a hole for a situational pass rusher who can be moved all around the line. Both of the new additions can be used there.

Overall, the defensive line is deeper, more experienced, and has the possibility of becoming more productive in 2020 than 2019’s iteration. The signings were smart, and as McDermott likes to say, “iron sharpens iron”. If those guys want to play most of the snaps, they will need to bring their A game, or they could find themselves stuck on the bench behind quality competition. I can’t wait to see this group in training camp.

 

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