A lot of energy has been spent this off-season on trying to figure out the status of NT Star Lotulelei, who opted out of 2020 leaving a massive void on the interior of the defensive line that had regressive effects on several defensive players namely LB Tremaine Edmunds and DT Ed Oliver. Twitter rumors swirled about a possible retirement back in March when next to nothing was being reported about Lotulelei’s status and speculations only got worse when the veteran was a no show at OTA’s. Thankfully there were a few video snippets released recently of Lotulelei performing some drills that have pacified most of the worriers but the concern regarding the 1-Tech role is still a major concern going forward. This defense suffered last season from the absence of a disruptor in the middle, a player who can eat blocks, upset the offensive scheme and be active in the backfield. While most of the attention will be on Lotulelei in 2021, as many have anointed him the savior of this defense and he could very well be the piece needed, the forgotten guy who could be the cog that brings everything together is DT Harrison Phillips.
The former Stanford stud and 2018 third round pick was making strides as a rotational player behind both high-priced Free Agent acquisition Star Lotulelei and Buffalo great Kyle Williams, as he racked up 35 total tackles and 4 stops for a loss in his rookie campaign. When Williams decided to ride off into the sunset of retirement at the end the season Phillips seemed to be in line for an expanded role even with the addition of 2019 1st Rd pick Ed Oliver entering the mix. That was the case until Phillips suffered a dreadful knee injury in week 3 that ended his sophomore season and halted his much-needed development. What made matters worse for Phillips was the disruption Covid caused and the effect it had on his return to form. Getting back into “game shape” after suffering a major injury and undergoing a major surgery, even in normal times is a difficult obstacle to overcome to prepare for a return but during covid in 2020 it was a daunting challenge. There were no normal team workouts, no OTA’s and no preseason games for players like Phillips to gain the confidence and the game speed conditioning needed to make a full recovery. As it turned out last year was more of a rehab year for Phillips as he spent most of season in a limited rotation building back his game strength and speed and as the season as he only participated in 31% of the defensive snaps down from 38% his rookie year. As the season progressed however and Phillips slowly returned to form we did see flashes of a disruptor on the interior, making some solid plays at the line of scrimmage while also putting some hits on the QB but we still did not get the guy we have been waiting for, will 2021 be that year?
With a full year of rehabbing under his belt, with his knee back to a 100%, with normal operations underway this offseason there is no reason why Phillips should not enter this season in his best physical shape solidifying the nose tackle position and giving it real depth and production in tandem with Lotulelei. Phillips stands at 6’3 and is a lean 310lbs. certainly not the frame of an immoveable DT but he is technically proficient, he has a good burst off the ball and is a “Nebraska country boy strong” on the interior. Where Lotulelei has become more of a block eater and an anchor on the line, Phillips has the skill set to be more than just that, he has the agility to penetrate, the footspeed to cross blocks and be active in the backfield vs the run and has enough short area quickness and spurt to collapse the pocket and harass the QB, things that have slowly faded from Lotulelei’s game. In 2020 the Bills suffered finding stability at the 1-Tech, with no Lotulelei and a rehabbing Phillips the Bills were forced to play Ed Oliver out of position more than they liked while playing an ineffective Vernon Butler more than they should have, the lack of physicality on the interior certainly effected MLB Tremaine Edmunds progression, he has a ton of natural ability but is still at the point of his development where he relies heavily on the protection of his down four and in 2020 he did not receive that sort of protection, certainly not consistently enough to take the next step forward and become the dominant player many project him to be. At the very least a healthy Phillips will provide the physicality up front, the line of scrimmage anchor needed to keep traffic from Edmunds and keep Oliver at the 3-Tech where he belongs, the best-case scenario is that a year four Phillips, in a contract year puts it all together and becomes the dual-disruptor we have been waiting for… I believe there is going to be a lot of “Horrible Harry” moments this season and that means good things for this Bills defense.