By now it is no secret that the Bills have made improving their pass rush a priority over the last two seasons, selecting Epenesa, Rousseau and Basham atop the draft while also bringing in Veteran Mario Addison and the versatile Efe Obada to bolster the roster. With all the talent in place on the edge of this defense the pass rush should go from a liability to a strength this season and one of the players many are anticipating to be a huge contributor to that turn around is 2021 first round pick DE Gregory Rousseau, but you might want to lower you expectations for him a just a bit….
Rousseau is a gifted specimen standing at 6’7 and weighing 265lbs with exceptional length, good power and above average mobility but he may be one of the rawest players to be drafted in the first round in recent memory. Surprisingly, Rousseau was a WR and safety in high school and made the conversion to the defensive line after being reevaluated by staff at the University of Miami, he bulked up and added nearly 30lbs to his frame from his senior year in high school. Credit to Rousseau, who possessed the toughness to move from one of the least physical positions (WR) to one of the most physically demanding positions in the game (DL) and had to learn on the job so to speak to compete and find his opportunities to get on the field. Rousseau’s career got off to a slow start when an ankle injury in the second week of the season sidelined him for his RS freshman year. In 2019 when he made his return, he finally made his splash in the ACC, recording an eye-popping 15.5 sacks, finishing only behind first round pick Chase Young for the nation’s lead, which earned him ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors as well as an ALL-ACC selection, all the while being a rotational player that started only 7 games that season. While the stats sound stellar on the surface, further examination of his production raises more questions about his readiness as a pass rusher than it answers. The majority of Rousseau’s sack production came from the interior, when he was lined up over guards and centers, stunting and twisting into gaps rather than being lined up on the edge, utilizing his length and speed to win match ups, in fact Rousseau looked particularly stiff on the edge and often times struggled to formulate cohesive rushes that weren’t just him bulling the tackle backwards. Another is the quality of offensive lineman Rousseau faced off against in 2019, the ACC had little to brag about as far as offensive lineman were considered, and Florida State, where he did most of his damage (5 sacks) rated as one of the worst offensive lines in the nation that year. Outside of a weak ACC Rousseau faced off with the likes of 1-AA Bethune-Cookman, Central Michigan, Florida International and Louisiana Tech, none of which fielded an NFL caliber lineman.
So, while Rousseau’s stat sheet said one thing, the manner in which he produced said another. While 2020 would have been the year for Rousseau to take that next step and prove to scouts he is a legitimate pass rusher not a fluke, he instead opted out from the season to focus on his NFL aspirations, leaving a great bit of concern about the type of player he would be: A freak athlete with the making of a dominant pass rusher or an overhyped product of weak competition? Unfortunately, Rousseau did little in his Pro-Day performance to alleviate some of those concerns, as he ran some sluggish 40s and underwhelmed in the agility portion of the testing, numbers which ultimately lowered his stock, so much that he went from a top 10 pick to a fringe first rounder in a matter of days. The question now for Bills fans is what to expect from Gregory Rousseau in 2021? While there are a lot of hopes in store for this young talent, I am here to caution fans from over hyping his rookie season and setting the bar too high for him, here are the three main reasons why Rousseau will not live up to some of the lofty expectations… THIS SEASON.
Rousseau is extremely raw, not only as a prospect in age and experience but as a capable defensive end, remember Rousseau only started to play the position once he arrived at Miami in 2018. A red shirt, an injury and an opt out has only left him with a single season of actual football (12 Games) and in that lone season his reps were limited to a rotational, pass rush role primarily from the interior. Rousseau has much to learn about the edge position not only from a game-play perspective but on an individual level. He needs to unlock his talents, learn how to use them properly such as his length, his burst and his natural strength to hone his pass rush abilities and win from the outside. He needs to find his comfort on the edge, learning how to attack NFL starting tackles, how to approach them how to game play them and to become a student of the game, in the film room, breaking down his opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. He needs to develop his moves and his counter moves, aspects that were not present in 2019. Right now, based on what we saw of Rousseau in his only season he was just a bigger, stronger, longer player than his opponents, he had little to no finesse in his approach and he will need to diversify his game if he is going to win consistently in the NFL, this takes time, more than a pre-season to discover.
The Bills have deployed a heavy rotation on the defensive front the past two seasons and with a crowded room of pass rushers such as veterans Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison who will look to get the lion’s share of reps there is a surging AJ Epenesa, a freakishly athletic Efe Obada, the hard-nosed style of Derrick Johnson and the more polished, NFL ready rookie Carlos Basham vying for reps. With this many capable players in one room, Rousseau’s progression will be slow moving for sure. Aside from the depth, McDermott and Frazier have a track record of slow playing rookies into the lineup. Outside of Tremaine Edmunds who was thrust into the starting role the moment he was selected most of their rookies were brought along gradually, Ed Oliver, AJ Epenesa, Taron Johnson and even Dane Jackson were all handled with patience. Rousseau will not be handled any differently, he will be forced to learn and mature and develop and a lot of that will be done in practice, in the film room and on Sundays watching from the sidelines.
Arriving a star as a rookie is not the norm, struggles are common for rookie pass rushers as they adjust to the speed and strength of the NFL, there are exceptions of course (Julius Peppers, Simeon Rice, Dwight Freeney) but on average edge rushers often take a season or two to acclimate to the conditions in the NFL trenches, this goes for polished players with a ton of collegiate experience under their belts not just raw projects: JJ Watt, Jevon Kearse and Jason Taylor tallied mediocre numbers in their rookie seasons but went on to dominate in the years following, so I strongly expect this to be the case with Rousseau as he enters the league because his learning curve is far larger than most coming in to play his position.
I believe Rousseau will develop into a quality edge defender who makes plays in the backfield and gets to opposing QBs consistently, but this will all be done in time. Do not, as a fan base set him up for failure because you misunderstood his 15.5 sacks for something they were not, they were not the production of dominance but more the tally of happenstance and opportunity. He will be what you want him to be in the future, it just will not be in 2021…. And that’s just fine.