Ed Oliver Defensive Tackle
We have all been waiting for the breakout of Ed Oliver since the moment the commissioner called his name in the 2019 draft; needless to say, our expectations have not exactly been met. Oliver was a highly touted prospect, at one point some experts even thought he could be the #1 overall pick. Many saw the second coming of Arron Donald, a compact, power player with exceptional quickness and closing speed that would wreak havoc on offenses. That has not exactly been the case, do not get me wrong, Oliver has flashed some exceptional qualities in his two seasons, but the consistency has just not been there as he seems to disappear for long stretches. Much of his 2020 regression was due to the fact he was playing out of position, the opt out of NT Star Lotulelei was a big blow to his development. Oliver was forced inside, where he took on a considerable number of double teams and at about 285lbs where he was not well equipped. Lotulelei is set to return in 2021 and with that Oliver should be bumped back out to his natural position of the 3-tech where he belongs, where he will certainly see less double teams and body traffic. Watch for it all to come together for Oliver next season, I am predicting a double-digit sack season for him and a Pro-Bowl nod. You heard it here first!
Dane Jackson Cornerback
The former 7th rounder from Pitt did not arrive in Orchard Park this past year with much notoriety or hype surrounding him and was widely considered a long shot to make the roster early on with the off-season signings of quality veterans Josh Norman and EJ Gaines joining returning starter Levi Wallace. To his credit the young CB impressed enough to stay on board, primarily as a practice squad player. Though he only appeared in 5 games this season he did not fail to make an impact in his limited time. In his first start vs the NY Jets, Jackson made a nice play picking undercutting a Sam Darnold pass for his first career INT while breaking up two others on the day.
He also shined again vs AZ making 8 stops, breaking up a pass and securing a key fumble. While he certainly made the best out of them, what was head scratching about Jackson was his lack of chances, Wallace and Norman were less than stellar most of the season and still he was left inactive for most of it. The encouraging sign is Brandon Beane thinks very highly of the young corner and sang his praises in an end of the year presser pointing to him as a guy who will definitely be in the starting mix in 2021. So, look for Jackson to have a breakout year in 2021 as he will be vying for the starting job across from Tre White.
A.J. Epenesa Defensive End
Epenesa was once considered a surefire top 10 pick coming out of Iowa, after having a stellar career where he amassed 36 sacks in three seasons but with a poor 40 time and less than impressive agility drills at the combine Epenesa dropped to the 2nd round. Upon his arrival to Buffalo, he was asked to shed some weight and play leaner and lighter to improve his speed and burst. To his credit Epenesa dropped nearly 30lbs in a relatively short time, looking great in his new physique. However, the adjusting to the speed and power of the NFL trenches at a much different playing weight than he had been accustomed to slowed his rookie development. Down the stretch, as Epenesa’s comfortability grew so did his playing time. Though we didn’t see the type of numbers we had hoped for he did flash some showing us the potential was there.
As 2021 begins to shape up its all but certain the D-line will be shedding some contracts in the coming months, a prime candidate to be cut is veteran DE Mario Addison. The 10-year vet was serviceable in 2020 but with his age climbing and his productivity declining GM Brandon Beane will more than likely move on from him and the $10M he’s owed. This will hoist Epenesa into a starting role and with the awaited return of NT Star Lotulelei returning this defense may finally get back to its old ways of feasting on quarterbacks and Epenesa plans to be a major part of that
Isaiah Hodgins Wide Receiver
Some of the more casual fans may be scratching their heads trying to figure out who Isiah Hodgins is, let me refresh your memory: he is the talented WR the Bills took in the 6th RD of last year’s draft. Hodgins was an extremely productive wide out at Oregon State where he complied some staggering numbers, scouts had questions about his vertical speed and ability to separate at the NFL level but one thing they all seemed to agree on was his hands, the kid can catch. Unfortunately, after having a good showing at training camp Hodgins was placed on IR with a shoulder injury where he remained for the entire season. Hodgins will be back and healthy in 2021 and given another opportunity to showcase those hands that got him drafted. Now I do not expect Hodgins to take Buffalo by storm with the bulk of throws going to Diggs and Beasley and with former 2020 draftee Gabriel Davis already well ahead of him, reps will be hard to come by. But I believe he will make an impact and his size, and his ability to make the tough catches will be too much for Dabol to ignore, watch for Hodgins to make his breakthrough next year.