Can we have an honest conversation about the Buffalo Bills' defense?
It overachieved by a country mile in 2017. Yes, the defense drove the bus on the Bills' road to the playoffs. But Sean McDermott and defensive chief Leslie Frazier had to squeeze every ounce of production possible out of the unit.
The numbers are not pretty. The Bills ranked 26th in yards allowed, 29th against the run and 20th against the pass. They were 31st in sacks per pass attempt. They were 20th in points allowed. And the defense was the strength of the team!
The defense bailed itself out by ranking ninth in takeaways. History shows that the ability to create takeaways fluctuates year to year, regardless of the yardage rankings. The defense was a tad better than the yardage numbers indicated because they were deflated by the midseason cave-ins against the Jets, Saints and Chargers. Still, Frazier could have won coordinator of the year, if there was such an award.
Fast forward to NFL Draft weekend.
McDermott and Frazier were not kidding themselves about the state of their defense. After taking quarterback Josh Allen at No. 7 overall, the Bills used their next four picks on defense.
Super freak linebacker Tremaine Edmunds – the 16th overall pick – eventually gives McDermott the elite middle linebacker talent his scheme needs. Stanford defensive tackle Harrison Phillips bolsters the middle of a Bills run defense that has been bad for almost this entire millennium. Then the Bills bolstered their thin secondary by taking cornerback Taron Johnson in the fourth round and safety Siran Neal in the fifth round.
Combine those moves with the free-agency additions of big man Star Lotulelei and edge rusher Trent Murphy and the defense is being remade this offseason.
"The game really starts up front, philosophically, for us on both sides of the ball," McDermott said. "Down the middle in particular you want to be strong and powerful. . . . You saw some of our issues last year in the run game on defense, so that has been a major emphasis on defense this year as well."
Edmunds gives the Bills' defense a player with the physical ability to be one of the top five players in the NFL at his position. Admittedly, that's getting way ahead of ourselves. He doesn't turn 20 until next week. The point is you only get his talent level in the top half of the first round of the draft. There simply are not any other 6-foot-5, 253-pound linebackers in the NFL who run 4.54 in the 40.
Phillips fills a key need for the Bills. The 6-3, 307-pounder gives the Bills a bigger talent as the No. 3 defensive tackle, spelling Lotulelei and Kyle Williams. Put Phillips ahead of two-year veteran Adolphus Washington on the depth chart right away.
It will be interesting to see how versatile Phillips can be. He played the 1-technique position at Stanford, so as a rookie he will be the primary relief for Lotulelei. That's key. The giant free agent from Carolina played between 55 percent and 60 percent of the snaps with the Panthers. The Bills want to keep him fresh.
McDermott acknowledged that Phillips primarily is a 1-technique player as he enters the NFL.
Phillips didn't show the kind of explosiveness off the ball in college that Williams has. Not many defensive tackles do. Everybody knew Williams had elite off-the-ball quicks coming out of LSU but his size was questioned, which is why he lasted to the fifth round in 2006.
Phillips didn't get too much chance to play the 3-technique at Stanford. He has pretty long arms for a DT, at 33 3-4 inches. He's smart. He's a technician. Don't underestimate his ability to grow as a pro. This season he's going to get a master's degree in hand fighting and film study from Williams.
Ideally, Phillips can develop into Williams' replacement.
"We’re trying to be very strong up front," McDermott said. "We made that obvious with Star and Trent’s additions. This will be another piece that will be in there competing."
Weber State's Johnson gives the Bills a viable fourth option at cornerback, behind starters Tre White and Vontae Davis and newly acquired, prospective nickel corner Phillip Gaines. A team needs to be four deep, at the least, at corner.
Siran Neal fills a need for more talent behind the standout starting safety tandem of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer. The veteran backups are Rafael Bush, signed from New Orleans, and L.J. McCray.
The Bills were a long way from an elite defense in 2017, despite their relative success. McDermott is shaping things up.
Story topics: 2018 NFL Draft