The Buffalo Bills have the anchor for the middle of their defense. The signing of former Panthers first-round draft pick Star Lotulelei in free agency gives the Bills a 6-foot-2, 315-pound rock to take on multiple offensive linemen. General Manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott are obviously familiar with Lotulelei's work from their time with him in Carolina.
The hope is that Lotulelei will free up his teammates to fly to the ball. He’ll be paid handsomely for the dirty work, with a five-year contract worth up to $50 million. For that to be money well spent, the Bills’ run defense needs to make a big jump from its 29th-place finish a year ago, when the team allowed 124.6 yards per game on the ground.
Because of his contract, there will be pressure on Lotulelei, but fans have to be careful not to judge his production solely on statistics.
Returnees: Kyle Williams, Adolphus Washington, Rickey Hatley.
Newcomers: Star Lotulelei (free agent), Harrison Phillips (draft), Tenny Palepoi (free agent).
Departures: Cedric Thornton (free agent).
What the numbers say: As mentioned above, the Bills ranked 29th in the NFL against the run in 2017.
What to expect: Tough call. Lotulelei’s signing was panned by some after he ranked 109th among interior defensive linemen last season by analytics website Pro Football Focus. Again, though, the Bills would counter that his production may not come in statistical measures.
If Lotulelei can indeed be the space eater the Bills need, the hope has to be that frees up veteran Williams to have a turn-back-the-clock season. At 35, Williams is unquestionably the heart and soul of the locker room. His sack totals have dropped the past two years, from five in 2016 to three in 2017. The Bills would love it if Williams doubles that number this year after he agreed to a one-year contract worth $6 million.
Phillips, a Stanford product, should be an immediate contributor on the defensive line. Although he gets compared to Williams, he might actually fit better as Lotulelei’s backup. That Phillips was available to them late in the third round has the Bills feeling like they got a steal.
Washington will head to training camp as the favorite for the other backup position. He had 33 tackles and one sack a season ago. Both Phillips and Washington were praised by Williams for the work they put in this offseason.
Hatley joined the Bills’ 53-man roster late last season, making one tackle in the regular-season finale at Miami. He’s 6-4, 310 pounds.
Palepoi was signed as a free agent from the Chargers. He appeared in 44 games the past three seasons as a reserve, making 53 tackles and one sack. An illness kept him out part of the spring, valuable time lost in what could be an uphill battle for a roster spot.