This is the sixth of a 10-part series that examines how well the Buffalo Bills have addressed each position during the offseason. Today’s installment looks at defensive line.
There was a time when the defensive line was the Bills' unquestioned strength, when it was among the best and most dominant in the NFL, when it was the primary inspiration for a catchy nickname: "The Cold Front."
That time wasn't that long ago, 2014.
It took only one season, 2015, for that perception to change radically, with end Mario Williams going from a career-best 14.5 sacks the year before to playing himself right off the team and with much quieter production from fellow end Jerry Hughes and tackle Marcell Dareus. The knee injury that ended the season of long-time veteran tackle Kyle Williams after only six games only added to the disappointment of the line's performance.
So it was hardly a shock that, with the first three picks of the draft, Rex Ryan had the Bills go "all-in" on putting the cold (as in icy intimidation and not imitation of frozen statues) back into their defensive front.
The specific addition to the line, third-round tackle Adolphus Washington from Ohio State, should have an immediate impact as a starter or at least as someone who sees a great deal of playing time.
The first two choices, Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland, factor heavily into the process as well, although Lawson will likely be missing when the season begins because of the surgery the outside linebacker from Clemson recently underwent to repair his right shoulder.
Here's the breakdown at defensive line:
Returning: Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Corbin Bryant, Max Valles, T.J. Barnes, Jerel Worthy and Lavar Edwards.
Newcomers: Adolphus Washington (third-round draft pick, Ohio State), Claudell Louis (UDFA, Fresno State), Justin Zimmer (UDFA, Ferris State) and Cedric Reed (UDFA, Texas).
Better, worse or the same?: The departure of Mario Williams, whose frustration with Ryan's defensive scheme caused him to become a malcontent who often gave a halfhearted effort last season, could very well be addition by subtraction.
He not only wasn't making anything approaching the impact he made the previous two years, but an argument can be made that his mere presence was counterproductive to all that Ryan was attempting to accomplish with a defense that asks linemen to do more complementing and play-making. Williams didn't have that sort of mindset. For the most part, the others on the line do.
Another change that at least one lineman, Dareus, would view in the same light is the dismissal of Karl Dunbar after only one year of coaching of the unit. Dareus made no secret about his dissatisfaction with Dunbar's coaching, saying in training camp that the two were not on the same page. By the end of the season and beyond, it is believed that more members of the line voiced concerns to higher levels of the organization that they weren't being helped by Dunbar's guidance. It doesn't seem coincidental, therefore, that he ultimately was replaced by John Blake, who has a long history with Ryan.
The addition of Washington -- whose combination of size, strength, and athleticism should benefit the Bills' ability to generate inside and outside pressure -- and incumbents who presumably have a greater understanding of what it's expected of them should result in improvement for the group. Washington is also expected to bring a nastier attitude the line often seemed to lack in 2015.
Corbin Bryant having a larger role as a strong candidate to start, or at least play regularly, should be a boost to stopping the run and rushing the passer. Bryant also would enhance the communication within the defense that proved so troubling last year.
Here's more food for thought: Kyle Williams' health will be something to watch, along with is hefty contract that was already restructured during the offseason. If Washington and Bryant show more consistent effectiveness through training camp and the preseason, it wouldn't be a shock if the Bills asked Williams to take a major pay cut to accommodate giving contract extensions to cornerback Stephon Gilmore and quarterback Tyrod Taylor.