The Buffalo Bills formed what they hope will be a dynamic duo at defensive tackle Tuesday.
The team welcomed veteran Kyle Williams back for a 13th season with the team shortly after making their first big move in free agency, coming to terms with Star Lotulelei on a five-year deal. That signing is expected to become official Wednesday, when the new NFL league year begins, a league source confirmed to The Buffalo News. ESPN's Adam Schefter was the first to report Lotulelei's pending agreement. Financial details have not yet been revealed.
The pairing is a logical one. Bills General Manager Brandon Beane was in the Carolina front office when Lotulelei was drafted 14th overall in 2013. Bills coach Sean McDermott was Carolina's defensive coordinator for the first four seasons of Lotulelei's career. The Bills also had a big need at the position after trading Marcell Dareus last season.
"I know him as a player, and I’m all for bringing on as many good players as we can, getting to know these guys, get these guys on kind of what our vision is and where we’re going and really make a charge to be as good a football team as we can be," Williams said. "There’s a whole lot of work that has to go down before we do that, and a guy like that, or as many guys like that, are obviously going to help."
The Bills also filled another need for depth at safety by reaching an agreement on a two-year contract with Rafael Bush, who spent the 2017 season with New Orleans. According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, that deal is worth up to $4.5 million.
Lotulelei, 28, has started 75 of 76 games in his career, with 141 tackles (83 solo), 11.5 sacks, five passes defensed, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. His primary job with the Panthers has been to engage multiple blockers, plug running lanes and free up his linebackers to make plays. The dirty work, if you will.
“The biggest thing more so than anything else is (Lotulelei) allows the linebackers to run. It's important,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera told the Charlotte Observer in August. "You have to have space-eaters, guys that are going to absorb and take up blockers. That's what he does. He does it about as well as anybody."
He will be counted on to help shore up a run defense that ranked 29th in the league, allowing an average of 124.6 yards per game. After Dareus was traded to the Jaguars in midseason, the run defense really struggled. The Bills allowed 1,487 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground from Week 9 through the end of the season. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, 1,105 of those yards came inside the tackles. Opponents averaged 4.8 yards per rush inside the tackles, which was tied for worst in the NFL.
A 6-foot-2, 315-pounder, Lotulelei will be counted on to help greatly improve that number.
"I don't think there's a whole lot of people that can do what I can do,” Lotulelei told the Panthers' official website at the end of the 2017 season. "The physicality and intelligence that I bring, I don't think there's a whole lot of people that have that combination."
Lotulelei's path to the the NFL has taken plenty of interesting turns. He moved at the age of 9 from his native Tonga to Utah. He helped Bingham High School to a state championship in 2006 and was a three-star recruit, but failed to qualify academically for BYU. Lotulelei considered quitting football, taking a job delivering furniture, but he eventually returned to the sport with Snow College. After one season there, he was recruited to Utah.
Lotulelei won the Morris Trophy in 2011, which is given annually to the best defensive lineman in the Pac-12. Despite some talk he might leave school early for the NFL, he returned for his senior season, finishing with 42 tackles, five sacks, 11 tackles for loss, four pass breakups, three forced fumbles, and four fumble recoveries. He was named a first-team Associated Press All-American, just the fourth in Utah program history.
Heading into the 2013 draft, Lotulelei was considered a top-five prospect by both of ESPN's draft experts, Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay. Some mock drafts at the time even had him in the running to be the No. 1 overall pick.
Lotulelei's draft stock took a bit of a hit when he was unable to work out at the NFL Scouting Combine. During the battery of physical tests performed, doctors observed abnormalities seen in an echocardiogram – Lotulelei's left ventricle was reportedly pumping at 44 percent efficiency compared with the normal range of 55 to 70 percent.
A few weeks before the draft, Dr. Josef Stehlik of University of Utah Cardiology wrote a letter to all NFL teams explaining that Lotulelei had been cleared "to participate in professional athletics without restrictions." Stehlik wrote in his letter, which was obtained by ESPN, that Lotulelei's abnormal test may have been because of a viral infection and that he had shown a "complete normalization of the heart muscle function."
Lotulelei was chosen by the Panthers with the 14th overall selection.