Before the Buffalo Bills' season opener Sunday against the New York Jets, a report from NFL Network surfaced regarding defensive tackle Marcell Dareus.
Ian Rapoport, an NFL Network Insider, described Dareus as a "former face of the franchise" who is now in the "crosshairs" of new General Manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott.
"I am told he is in a make-or-break year for the Buffalo Bills," Rapoport said. He "needs to show this administration that he is in fact 'all in' to stay with this team.
"Now this is the same Marcell Dareus who got sent home from the third week of the preseason for violating a team rule. He has a tough contract to get out from under. But this is a player, a really good player, who needs to show the team a lot during this 2017 season."
"Tough" is underselling it. The six-year contract extension Dareus signed prior to the 2015 season included a whopping $60 million in guarantees. Even if the Bills wanted to, it would be nearly impossible for them to get out of Dareus' contract in 2017. Cutting him would result in a $38 million salary-cap hit spread out over this season ($24.4 million) and next ($14.2 million). Trading him isn't a realistic option, either, given the off-field issues that have resulted in a pair of drug-related suspensions and basically eliminated any real value to such a move.
The fact he did get sent home from Baltimore before the third preseason game against the Ravens for violating a team rule likely didn't help in that regard, either.
The host of the segment, Mike Garafolo, followed Rapoport by adding, "on the day of final cuts I heard from several people around the league, if you played defense for the Bills, you were available via trade. They had a lot of guys on that side of the ball they were potentially looking to move, Dareus may have been one of them. You’re right, make-or-break year for him."
Shortly after that segment aired, Dareus participated in the Bills' 21-12 victory over the Jets. He did so, however, without recording a single tackle. He also took fewer snaps than he did in any game last season, playing just 34 of 58 (59 percent). On Monday, McDermott explained why.
"I'll start off by saying I thought Marcell played a good game," the coach said. "You know, defensive tackle is probably the most unselfish, or one of the most unselfish positions on the football field just by the nature of the position. Usually you're freeing someone else up to make a play. ... Marcell was doing some of that.
"And then after that, it's really just about rolling fresh defensive linemen. So really don't know what went on in the past, I just know what our system calls for, and that's for fresh bodies up front. That's just a healthy rotation of guys, so they're fresh to rush the passer when we need them. I thought we did a good job of that."
Dareus' 34 snaps were the fewest he's taken in a game since he played 16 in a Week 16 game against Dallas in the 2015 season. He left that game because of a neck injury, though, and did not return. You have to go back to Week 11 of the 2014 season to find a game in which Dareus played fewer snaps without a reported injury.
"From our perspective, it really wasn't a limited role," defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said Monday. "He did exactly what the game plan required. We wanted to keep our guys fresh and have a rotation system. Mike Waufle, or defensive line coach, does a great job in rotating players and keeping them fresh.
"We're going to need that this weekend. It's going to be a lot warmer down in Carolina than it is where we're practicing. So that rotation system, we want to keep it in effect throughout the season, barring injury. We want to make sure we're able to manage not only Marcell's reps, but everybody on our defensive line, and keep them fresh."
Dareus, who declined an interview request after the game Sunday, rushed the passer on 23 snaps Sunday, according to the analytics website Pro Football Focus, while playing run defense on the other 11. Part of the rotation the Bills used involved taking Dareus off the field on third downs for defensive end Ryan Davis – a curious move for their highest-paid player and someone who had a 10-sack season in 2014, which is the last time the Bills ran a 4-3 scheme.
"He's capable of rushing the passer, we just felt like Ryan was better suited for what they were doing with their guards," Frazier said. "There may be times down the line where Marcell may find himself in that role as well, but for now, at least for yesterday, it was more about Ryan in those situations. Not that we don't think that Marcell can be effective in those situations."