Written by Greg Boucher
The Bills reached the AFC Championship game for the first time in decades last year, but one component that potentially kept them from advancing to the Superbowl was the play of their defensive line, particularly their pass rush. The unit that featured two aging veterans Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison, appeared to lack the size and speed to win upfront. The duo failed to apply any meaningful pressure on Patrick Mahomes all night, who lit them up for 325 yards and 3 TDs en route to a 38-24 victory. That loss made getting bigger, faster, and younger along the edge of the defensive line a priority. General Manager Brandon Beane spent his first two picks in the draft getting pass rushers. Fast forward nearly nine months, and the stagnant pass rush of 2020 now appears to be one of the most robust units, not only in the division but quite possibly in the entire NFL. This upgrade of younger talent begs the question: Should the youth on this defensive line be forcing out the old?
The Bills 1st round pick, DE Gregory Rousseau, had been pegged by many (myself included) to be a long-term project at the position. He was considered highly raw and developmental, with only one real season of production in college (2019). His impact, seen as a down-the-road for the Bills. Yielding benefits in the way players in a bygone era had been developed. However, a quicker than expected progression and an outstanding camp with some high-quality reps in his first two pre-season games has his timetable got accelerated quicker than many have anticipated. Rousseau registered his first all though unofficial sack in the first series of the match-up with the Detroit Lions. He pressed fellow 1st round pick, Right Tackle Penei Sewell, back on skates, before knocking QB Jared Goff to the turf with his big paw. While still raw, Rousseau has proven his rare length and athleticism are tough questions for NFL lineman to handle. Rousseau has caused a tremendous amount of problems for blockers and QBs thus far, leading all rookies with a 33% pressure rate through two pre-season games. While pre-season performances are hardly a guarantee of regular-season success, Rousseau appears to be on the right track and is making a solid argument for a significant bit of playing time come the regular season.
Another pass rusher vying to take snaps away from the veterans, who is also having a great start to the season, is AJ Epenesa. The former 2nd round pick was a skilled pass rusher at Iowa, but his lack of explosiveness hampered his draft stock and rookie production. Epenesa played rotationally last year behind Mario Addison but struggled to make any significant impact, finishing with only one sack on the season. What Epenesa needed to take the next step was to add speed and flexibility to his game. So that is what he did. He dedicated himself to the Bills off-season training program and added functional strength and a newfound burst of speed to go along with his deepening bag of pass rush moves. Epenesa wowed coaches and players alike this camp, gaining praise from Addison, who warned the NFL that the 6’6 265lbs pass rusher was ready to breakout. During a recent presser, he announced for all to hear, “AJ is ready… watch out for AJ.” Epenesa has been lethal off the edge thus far, putting his newfound explosion on full display vs. the Chicago Bears. Epenesa exploded out of his stance, forcing Tackle Elijah Wilkinson to reel, and with a one-handed punch to his inside shoulder, he toppled him over before leveling QB Andy Dalton. The play of Epenesa has him trending straight up, and it is making it near impossible for coaches not to give him the bulk of snaps over Addison.
While Rousseau and Epenesa have garnered most of the attention for their play up to this point, Carlos Basham and Efe Obada have been steadily applying pressure and causing issues upfront as well. Obada, a Free Agent signing with a ton of potential, has made an almost undeniable case for a roster spot thus far. The 6’5 270lbs specimen has been freakishly quick off the edge as well as from the interior. Throughout two pre-season contests, Obada has spent a good deal of time playing in the opponent’s backfield, getting after the QB, and being a disruptive force all around. He’s also actively chased down ball carriers from the backside and beyond, using his terrific length and speed to crash the edge and give pursuit. Like the others, Obada has the versatility to be used in many ways, and he can be a stand-up rusher; he can put his hand in the dirt over the tackle or even play inside over the guard. This quiet off-season signing has been impressive early and has made it clear that not only should he make this roster but that he deserves a prominent role on this front as well. Playing time will most certainly take reps away from Hughes and Addison should he get those snaps. Rookie DE Carlos Basham has been quietly active to this point. He is a more well-rounded pass rusher than his draftmate Rousseau, but he lacks his uncanny size and length. Basham (6’5 280lbs.) has been a steady presence throughout camp and into the pre-season. He has shown that he can play inside or out at the NFL level and has enough burst and strength to be disruptive from either spot. So, with the ability of Basham pushing for playing time, one cannot help but ask the question: Should the aging veterans Hughes and Addison be downgraded from starters so that these young playmakers can get the lion’s share of snaps?
Head Coach Sean McDermott has been deliberately slow bringing rookies along, cautious not to throw them to the wolves before they were ready, but it is evident to anyone who has tuned into the Bills pre-season, Rousseau and Basham are not the typical Bills rookies. When figuring Epenesa and Obada into the mix, there is too much talent stockpiled on this roster. With Hughes being 33 and dealing with a lingering calf injury and Addison turning 34 before the season begins, they are the elder statesmen. I believe these two veterans have a role on this team, but unlike last season it should be more of a limited role now that they have the length, the size, and the speed to win upfront. Brandon Beane set this plan into motion in 2020, drafting Epenesa, following that up with Rousseau and Basham in 2021. Now is the time to unleash the cache of youth and make last year’s weakness this year’s strength. The future of the Bills pass rush should be now, not tomorrow.