It seems every offseason in Buffalo there is a reoccurring theme: improve the pass rush. No matter what pieces Brandon Beane adds or subtracts, drafts or buys he cannot seem to get the formula right. Since taking over the Bills front office Beane has made the rebuild of their defensive line a major priority, which has taken precedent over all other position groups. He has selected six defensive linemen in total since 2018, including those players taken in this April’s draft. Five of those players he selected in the first three rounds (DT Harrison Phillips 3rd, DT Ed Oliver 1st, DE Darryl Johnson 7th, DE AJ Epenesa 2nd, DE Gregory Rousseau 1st, DE Carlos Basham 2nd). Besides using high draft capitol to construct this unit Beane has also invested heavily in acquiring players on the free agent market. In his time as general manager he has not been shy about opening up the coffers and spending money, allocating $50M to veteran block eater Star Lotulelei and $22.5M to DE Trent Murphy in 2018. In 2019 he paid surprise asset DT Jordan Phillips $4.5M, then reinvested heavily again in 2020 paying $30.4M to the aging DE Mario Addison, another $16M to first round bust DT Vernon Butler and $16M to DE Quentin Jefferson and in the midst of all this spending Beane extended veteran Jerry Hughes paying him another $23M over the next two years and this off season he signed Ex-Carolina Panther Efe Obada to a 1yr $1.5M deal. In total Beane has dedicated nearly $140M to four positions in four years and over that time no other franchise in the NFL has invested more into their defensive line in terms of dollars and in draft picks than the Bills. The big problem for Beane is that for all the resources he has allocated to this group; the return has not yet yielded him the level of production he had intended.
In 2020 this unit endured some struggles reaching its potential and finding a level of consistent play, much had to do with a covid shortened pre-season and some injuries but, with those struggles their ability to stop the run reemerged. They ranked 25th in rushing yards allowed per carry with (4.6) and finished a lowly 27th in the league in rushing TDs allowed giving up (21) on the ground. Though it is a collaborative effort, this unit ranked 18th in scoring drives allowing opponents to put up points on 39% of their drives. In critical Red Zone situations, when the defensive line must rise to the occasion and stuff the run or pressure the quarterback the defense ranked 28th, admittedly it cannot all be placed upon the defensive line but there is no question their lack of consistency was certainly a contributing factor. They also ranked 18th in 4th down conversions allowing opponents to move the chains on nearly 60% of attempts and most disappointing they allowed opponents to rush for 95 yards or more in 10 different games and on 3 separate occasions they allowed teams to rush for more than 170 yards, which is concerning to some degree considering their offense held wide leads in a majority of contests forcing opponents into more passing situations (573 attempts) compared to (414 rushing attempts). However, slowing the run was not their only deficiency as a unit, getting to the quarterback was not a particular strength for this revamped defensive line either. Despite all the supposed upgrades made to this group they finished the season with only 19.5 registered sacks, 33-year-old DE Mario Addison led the unit with 5 total sacks which tied him for 75th overall extending the streak to the last double digit sack performance by a Bills defensive lineman to seven years. Jerry Hughes the last player to record double digit output in 2014 (10) has been there most consistent pass rushing threat on this roster for years, since 2018 he ranks sixth among edge defenders in total pressures with (175) but over that same period he has only reached the QB (16) times tying him for 42nd in the league and has struggled to produce since the departure of Mario Williams. Second year player Ed Oliver was set for a breakout year after getting acclimated in 2019 but with the absence of Lotulelei and the ineffectiveness of Vernon Butler, Oliver was forced out of position and his pass rushing productivity slipped from 5 sacks to 3. Their second-round pick, DE AJ Epenesa was brought along slowly in his rookie season as he adjusted to a new playing weight, earning limited snaps on a rotational basis and while there were some promising flashes from him his pass rush is still in the developmental phase as he registered 1 sack in his rookie outing.
Brandon Beane has since moved on from Quinton Jefferson, releasing him back in march and surprisingly chose to restructure deals for Mario Addison who will turn 34 in September and Vernon Butler who finished 2020 with 18 total stops and 0 sacks. As he entered the draft there was that old reoccurring theme: improve the pass rush. While many people envisioned Beane taking an edge rusher early, no one outside of the front office expected him to take an edge rusher in back-to-back rounds, selecting Gregory Rousseau in the 1st and Carlos Basham in the 2nd. With those selections Beane has yet again gone all in on fixing this defensive line, primarily its pass rush. Rousseau is as raw a prospect as there was in the draft, but at 6’7 265lbs. with length, mobility and incredible potential he can help next year off the edge. While he was the 2nd round pick Basham is the more NFL ready of the two, having played 4 seasons at Wake Forest where he developed a potent arsenal of rush moves, which should help him become an immediate impact. Outside of the two high draft picks Beane also added super athletic DE/DT Efe Obada back in March by way of the Carolina pipeline. Obada is a player with tremendous upside and mismatch ability who registered 5 sacks in limited action in 2020, who has experience rushing from both inside and out and could be a surprise contributor next year.
With Star Lotulelei set to return, the expectations are high for this defensive line, not because he figures to make a ton of plays but because his presence should help those around him make plays. With Lotulelei back, Oliver should see play exclusively at the 3-Tech, his natural position, where he will face more 1 on 1 blocks and utilize his strength and speed to win matchups. With Epenesa a year improved, with OTA’s and a pre-season to look forward to he too should be instore for a more expanded role on the defense and should likely improve on his sack total of 2020. Jerry Hughes is now at the end of his career, but could be instore for his best season in years, with all of the added pass rushers around him, with the various line ups McDermott and Frazier can scheme up there is a possibility he too will have more 1 on 1 pass rush match ups and with others around him making way to the QB at a higher rate he may benefit from their pressure as opposed to others benefiting from his. While this may be the most highly invested defensive line in football it has a chance to become one of the most dangerous, this big gamble has the chance of paying off big time, we will just have to wait and see…. Again.