Marcell Dareus made sure to say all the right things when all eyes were on him.
Surrounded by a crowd of cameras on Wednesday, the Bills’ high-priced defensive tackle downplayed his limited role in their Week 1 win over the Jets, going so far as to regurgitate the familiar “one-eleventh” mantra that has become Sean McDermott’s calling card.
“I’m just doing the plays they want me to do on first and second down, being cooperative, playing inside the defense and doing exactly what’s asked of me,” Dareus told reporters after practice.
His stat line against the Jets: 34 snaps. Zero tackles.
It was his lowest snap total since Week 16 of the 2015 season, when he played 16 against the Dallas Cowboys before leaving with an injury.
Pressed on his decision to use Dareus only 59 percent of the time on defense, McDermott defended his preference for rotating players (a strategy that dates back to his time as the Carolina Panthers’ coordinator).
“We want fresh players,” he said. “… That’s just philosophically what we believe in.”
But beneath the surface, under all of those clichéd responses and rehearsed lines, lies the truth behind the awkward relationship between Dareus — a talented player who can’t seem to get out of his own way at times — and an organization that has shown itself to only be committed to him financially.
Dareus, 27, was careful to recite McDermott’s coach-speak, even flashing a smile while navigating a potential landmine of questions designed to get to the heart of his place in McDermott’s long-term vision. But you’d be foolish to believe that any player, let alone a veteran who once was a cornerstone of a defense, is content with a diminished role in a rebuilt roster.
“I mean, it was a little challenge,” said Dareus, the third overall pick in 2011, “trying to get the ball rolling, working moves, wanting to get to the QB. Trying to flash here, flash here and throw your fastball. Just trying to get that timing down with Kyle Williams and Jerry Hughes, things like that. Some things just take getting used to.”
You’d also be naive to believe that McDermott can’t find a better way to capitalize on the Bills' biggest financial investment: a 6-foot-3, 331-pound defensive tackle making more than many NFL quarterbacks.
The seventh-year pro carries a team-high salary-cap hit of over $16 million this season and next. So cutting him outright is an expensive proposition.
McDermott said external factors, like player salaries, don’t influence his decision-making on game day. “I think about what’s going to give us the best chance to win a football game,” said the coach, who also employs a “whatever it takes to win the game” approach to using star running back LeSean McCoy. “… It’s all about getting the best 11 on the field and putting the players into positions to be successful.”
McDermott insisted that “everyone adds value” and “we need everyone to win.” But the question remains: How much do the Bills need Dareus to win?
Yes, McDermott brought his defensive style from the Panthers to the Bills, and yes, he’ll stick with the strategies and schemes he believes are most effective. But how do you justify limiting a former 10-sack interior lineman to first- and second-down situations?
I’m sure Dareus would like to know, too.
But here’s the rub: McDermott and new general manger Brandon Beane weren’t the ones who decided Dareus was worth a six-year, $108 million extension in 2015.
“It’s a new regime, and the way we’re doing this, I’m only one piece of the whole puzzle,” the defensive lineman said.
People in NFL circles questioned his mega-deal at the time, including some within the Bills organization. Scouts and personnel executives note that Dareus is a player with tremendous upside, whose lack of maturity has always been a concern. There also have been lingering questions about his commitment to his craft.
He’s been benched during games more than once by a former head coach and twice been suspended by the NFL for violating the substance abuse policy. But Dareus apparently was given a clean slate when McDermott and Beane took over. Then in Week 3 of the preseason, he was sent home from Baltimore for violating an unspecified team rule. Both player and coach have said that incident is now in the past.
But Dareus’ future still remains unclear.
He possesses the ability to be disruptive, yet he registered only 5.5 combined sacks in 23 games over the past two seasons. But the Bills certainly won’t see those same high sack totals from three years ago if Dareus is only asked to bull-rush opponents rather than use every tactic to take down quarterbacks.
“You need 11 guys and 11 guys being unselfish, doing their job,” said McDermott. “… I thought Marcell did a heck of a job of that the other day.”
Hours later, Dareus stood at his locker, engulfed by a sea of reporters. And he was more than happy to publicly parrot his head coach.
“I mean, I’m one-eleventh,” he said. “I’m doing my job.”
Dareus’ playing time will undoubtedly be scrutinized over the weeks and months to come. Maybe then, we’ll get to the bottom of this.