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Bad analytics aside, Star Lotulelei fits Sean McDermott's bill

If there ever was a time for Buffalo Bills fans to have blind faith in head coach Sean McDermott, the signing of Star Lotulelei is it.

Granted, McDermott has built up a heap of faith among fans by virtue of ending the playoff drought. But McDermott's personal connection to Lotulelei gives the signing a high chance of success for the Bills.

McDermott knows what good run defense looks like. His Carolina defenses ranked sixth, fourth, 16th and second against the run in his last four years as Panthers defensive coordinator.

Lotulelei was McDermott's space-eating defensive tackle those four years. McDermott knows exactly what he's getting in Lotulelei.

The analytics community is not impressed.

Lotulelei ranked 45th out of 49 NFL defensive tackles who played at least 50 percent of their teams' snaps last season, according to Pro Football Focus.

Caveat: Analytics sites tend to favor 3-technique defensive tackles who penetrate the backfield over 1-technique defensive tackles whose primary job is to eat space.

The most important role of the 6-foot-2, 315-pound Lotulelei was to keep blockers off the linebackers, so those speedy players could run free and make tackles.

The Bills clearly need more dirty work, after ranking 29th against the run last year and 25th in yards-per-rush allowed. Of course, even that ranking has to be viewed in context. The Bills' offense was bad. It ranked 22nd in points and 30th in time of possession. So the Bills' defense faced the sixth most rush attempts in the NFL.

While the Bills' run defense was not good enough, the defense overall was far better than the yardage rankings suggested. Buffalo held 11 of 17 opponents to under 21 points.

Lotulelei is durable. He missed only four games in five years for the Panthers and played between 52 and 65.6 percent of the defensive snaps for Carolina every year, according to PFF. He was at 59 percent in 2017.

He is primarily a 1-technique player, lining up over a shoulder of the center, a position that sees a fair amount of double-team blocks. He's a good fit with Kyle Williams, who plays the 3-technique spot and thrives at penetrating.

Unlike Williams, Lotulelei is not going to make a lot of "splash" plays in the backfield.

That's generally where he gets dinged in analytics.

"He's a guy who has declined over the past couple of seasons, and even at his best wasn't the player he was supposed to be as a draft prospect," said Sam Monson, analyst for Pro Football Focus.

"He's a run stuffer in a league that's ever more pass oriented," Monson said. "His rookie year he was excellent as a run defender and had 37 defensive stops, which is a top-end figure, but since then it's been a steady decline in performance and relevance for the Panthers. On a modest deal, he should at least be able to play nose tackle for the Bills in a way Cedric Thornton couldn't, but it would need him to be significantly better to make it a big move."

As a rookie, Lotulelei ranked second in PFF's run-stop percentage among defensive tackles. Lotulelei made 30 "stops" – defined as tackles that result in an offensive failure – on 232 run snaps. Overall among defensive tackles, Lotulelei ranked 14th out of 40 qualifying defensive tackles who took at least 50 percent of their team's defensive snaps. In his second year, he ranked 15th out of 40. In 2016 he was 20th among DTs.

If one considers Lotulelei's primary role as keeping blockers off linebackers, then he consistently has done that job. Carolina has one of the most effective linebacking corps in the NFL in Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson.

Turn on the video of this season's games, and Lotulelei was doing pretty good dirty work. In a Carolina win over the Jets, a team that gashed the Bills on the ground, Lotulelei had a solid, if unspectacular game. The Jets rushed for only 109 yards. In a playoff loss at New Orleans, Lotulelei held the fort against the Saints' quality interior offensive line. New Orleans gained 41 yards on 22 carries.

You also see good effort. Lotulelei chased Saints back Mark Ingram to the sideline on a toss play. He didn't make the tackle, but he wasn't loafing.

Lotulelei does not show the dominance in the backfield that Marcell Dareus showed when he was playing at an elite level in 2014 and 2015. Yet on a team desperate for space-eating, Lotulelei fills a big need.

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