When will the Bills get return on their investment in Ed Oliver?

CBS Sports

Written by Greg Boucher

Once upon a time Ed Oliver was considered by some to be a potential #1 overall pick, he was that athletic, that powerful and flashed the ability to be that dominant of a player at the University of Houston. Though eventually QB Kyler Murray went on to become the number 1 pick Oliver would only last a few more selections before the Buffalo Bills nabbed him at 9. The hype surrounding the 6’2-290lbs defensive tackle was immense, he was pegged to be an instant game wrecker, someone who could spend a career in the opponents backfield making plays and terrorizing quarterbacks. Some even made the bold comparison to L.A. Rams superstar Arron Donald, the two shared similar builds, the same raw power and the freakish athletic ability that the comparison seemed fitting. Unfortunately, Oliver did not transition to the NFL trenches quite as seamlessly as Donald. In his first two seasons Oliver has only managed 8 sacks and 11 tackles for a loss while over the same period Donald racked up 20 sacks and an eye-popping 40 tackles for a loss, quickly putting the comparisons to rest. Though, not being as good as Aaron Donald is certainly not indicative of being a bad player, it is fair to say that almost every other defensive tackle in the NFL is a lesser player than the perennial Pro Bowl selection but regardless Oliver’s career has gotten off to a somewhat underwhelming beginning.

The less than stellar start was not entirely unpredictable, though Oliver’s talents were vast he was extremely unrefined when he arrived in Orchard Park, many of the analysts myself included believed he was not well prepared for the transition to the NFL. At 290lbs. he played a non-traditional nose guard, instead of absorbing blocks and protecting the linebackers he was tasked with beating centers across their face, shooting gaps and playing in the backfield, a style which ultimately produced great results. Oliver was virtually un-blockable off the snap, he was able to bullet by lineman or bull them back into the QBs lap as he finished his career with 192 total tackles, a staggering 53 for a loss and 13.5 sacks, while playing in the American Conference versus less than NFL caliber interior lineman. While his ability to penetrate and be disruptive in the backfield brought him national notoriety it did not completely prepare him to be an NFL ready defensive tackle in McDermott’s gap control system. For one NFL lineman are not so easily beat across their face, they are extremely quick and adept at punching and mirroring also McDermott does not permit his lineman to be free players, shooting gaps and avoiding contact. His system requires lineman to control their counterparts, allowing linebackers a clear path to the ball while reading the block before disengaging and finding the football. I believe it was this drastic change in style and responsibility that hindered Oliver’s transition and held back his ability to be a consistent impact. You can go back to his 2019 film and find him struggling to hold his ground despite his strength, you can find him struggling to disengage from blocks despite his quickness, you can find him struggling to locate the football despite his instincts. It was clear early on that Oliver was not going to be an instant star in this league nor a dominant force on this team for some time. Though many fans did not want to endure yet another “wait and see” high draft pick that is exactly what they got with Oliver.

The first half of 2019 was shaky at best for Oliver, over the first eight games he was rarely relevant on the stat sheet, only recording 8 total tackles and 2 sacks but what frustrated many was as his snaps and comfortability in the system were increasing his production was not. It seemed for long stretches of games he would disappear, not just statistically but in his ability to be disruptive by getting himself into the backfield and in the face of the QB. The fan base had begun to grow leery of the 9th overall pick, it seemed we were in the midst of another slow developing draft pick. That is until week 10 rolled around when the Bills took on the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving night. Oliver seemed to come alive, making 3 tackles, 2 sacks and a forced turnover on the big stage as the Bills went on to beat the Cowboys 26-15. We had our first real glimpse of what Oliver could be, he was disruptive, he was active, he reset the line of scrimmage and most importantly he made big plays.

Oliver went on to finish the season with a 65.6 PFF grade, 24 tackles, 5 sacks and 1 FF, not the high-end production we had anticipated but despite the transition, the learning curve and the rotation his second half gave fans hope going forward.

Last seasons was set to be the breakout year for many Bills players, none more so than Oliver. Fellow defensive tackle Jordan Phillips left for Arizona in free agency, slating Oliver to take on a larger role and become the starter alongside Star Lotulelei. Then Covid-19 hit America, disrupting the normal function of every institution, and the NFL was no exception. Many players were afforded the opportunity to optout of the season penalty free, Lotulelei was one such optout and his absence would have a ripple effect, stunting the progression of several young players none more so than LB Tremaine Edmunds and Ed Oliver. With Lotulelei out of the line picture Beane was hard pressed to sign a late replacement, finding comfort in former Carolina DT and first round pick Vernon Butler. Though Butler arrived as a big bodied tackle (6’4-330lbs.) fresh off his best season as a pro he did not have near the impact as Lotulelei, and McDermott and Frazier forced Oliver down into the 1-Tech where he would face more double-team situations, limiting his natural ability to be disruptive and get after the QB. Credit to Oliver he never verbalized his frustration with his usage, he played hard but by all accounts, he did not take that next step as was expected. “At the end of the day, when you look at the film, I think Ed has made improvements in his second season. Do I think there is more work to be done? Absolutely, just like there is with our entire football team.” Head Coach Sean McDermott offered on Oliver’s progress.

Oliver finished 2020 with a slight decrease in production across the board, tallying 30 total tackles, 3 sacks and 1 forced fumble, while his statistics dropped unfortunately so did his PFF grade, dropping down nearly 16 points from his rookie year finishing with a 48.0 overall. What was troubling but somewhat expected was that his run-defense grade was just 30.1 this season, but the silver lining was his pass-rush grade jumped more than 10 points while he did not tally as many sacks as 2019, he had an increase in pressures with 36. “Ed’s playing really well, and if people want to just look at sack numbers, he doesn’t have those” General Manager Brandon Beane said. “But he impacts the game, not only the pass game, but the run game, and he’s growing, he’s learning.

But at the end of the day, the sacks will come, I think, as he continues to learn the game and learn how people are playing him and blocking him. Ed faces a lot of doubles, too, so it’s not the easiest road for him. But I thought he definitely took a step up from year 1 to year 2. He might have started slow, this year but I thought three-quarters of the year he played really well and helped our defense.”

With two full seasons under his belt 2021 is set to be the year we see the return on the Oliver investment, Star Lotulelei the block eating veteran will be returning and Oliver should find himself almost exclusively playing the 3-technique, a place where his skills are best utilized. Also, yet to be factored into the equation is the addition of a pass rusher, Beane was a legitimate player in the JJ Watt sweepstakes, though he missed out on him it is clear his intent is to bring in a formidable player on the edge to bolster this unit. With another pass rusher to pair with Hughes and Epenesa, offenses will have a difficult time zeroing in on one player to negate, this will certainly propel Oliver’s progress and make a breakout year a very real possibility. A player with his abilities, his power, his quickness should be problematic for NFL guards to contain one-on-one. Bills fans gave Oliver a pass for mediocre production his rookie year because he was a rookie, in year two they gave him another pass because he was out of position, there will not be another pass afforded to Oliver in 2021, this has to be his year and I believe the former number 9 overall pick is poised to have a major breakout this year.

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