In 2013, when Star Lotulelei was a rookie defensive tackle who had joined the Carolina Panthers as a first-round draft pick, he found guidance from a veteran at the same position, Dwan Edwards. Edwards was in the 10th season of an NFL career that included a brief stop with the Buffalo Bills, from 2010 to 2011.
Edwards wasn't much of a talker, but he provided Lotulelei with plenty of good examples of how to be a pro.
"He was a professional’s professional," Lotulelei said. "He came in every day early, warmed up. He had a routine going every single day that he never missed. And then, when we were out on the field, it was all-out effort, just showing us young guys how it’s supposed to be, how we’re expected to work.”
Now, in his second season with the Bills, Lotulelei finds himself as the veteran mentor for a first-round choice who is next to him on the defensive line, Ed Oliver.
Lotulelei also fits the description of someone who is more about actions than words. He has the additional benefit of having as thorough an understanding of the Bills' defensive scheme as any player, or coach, for that matter because he played in it for five seasons with the Panthers (the first four while Bills coach Sean McDermott served as defensive coordinator) and is entering his second year in the system in Buffalo.
And Lotulelei has made it a point of interacting with Oliver on a daily basis during OTA practices this offseason.
“Just helping him understand what’s expected of the D-line when it comes to technique, when it comes to mentality, when it comes to different things like that,” Lotulelei said Tuesday. “I can only help them so far as far as the type of players we are, because we’re different. He’s a much more explosive, athletic kind of player than I was when I came in.
“But I can teach him what’s expected of him being a first-round draft pick coming into this system, being with Sean and his system, playing for (defensive coordinator Leslie) Frazier, and then being with these coaches for one season, at least, what’s going to be expected of him from these coaches.”
A year ago, Lotulelei lined up next to Kyle Williams, who was in his 13th year with the Bills. Williams retired as a player after the 2018 season, and the Bills chose Oliver ninth overall to fill the massive void in their front.
These days, Williams is dabbling in media. NFL Network hired him to analyze the defensive linemen during the NFL scouting combine earlier this year, and that gave him a chance to study game video of Oliver. He was particularly impressed with Oliver's consistently strong effort while playing for the University of Houston.
While taking in Tuesday's practice at One Bills Drive, Williams stressed the importance of Oliver taking advantage of the resources he has in Lotulelei, and other defensive veterans such as outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander and defensive end Jerry Hughes.
“He’s got to work with those guys," Williams said. "I mean, he’s going to get close with those guys. He’s going to be in close quarters with them, day in and day out, for probably years now. So, he has to build a relationship there, he’s got to build trust there. First of all, the veterans have to be able to trust him and know he’s going to do the right thing. And, hopefully leaning on those guys for information and knowledge and then kind of build that repertoire a little bit.”
McDermott thinks it's particularly important for Oliver to pay close attention to the way Lotulelei and other veterans carry themselves in and away from the team facility.
“Watching just the habits, really, that come with being a professional," McDermott said. "What time you get in the building, what time you leave. Film watching. When do I lift weights? When do I get a massage? What do I do on the weekend? Being a 24-hour professional football player, as opposed to, ‘OK, I’m in the building for eight hours,’ or whatever it is. There’s a difference in that type of habit process and so understanding that it’s an all-day, all-night commitment ... not just a, ‘Hey, this is what I do during the day, and then I’m outside the building and this is what I do.’ So it’s important that the habits that precede the winning are being built the right way and in a timely fashion for these young players.”
Lotulelei knows, however, that such lessons aren't always absorbed quickly.
As closely as he watched Edwards, he had to figure out for himself, often through trial and error, what playing in the NFL was all about. He recalls not having a full feel for that until his third season.
“It took me maybe a year or two to kind of get (past mentally) where I was so excited when the day was over to just leave, I wanted to get out of here and go home," Lotulelei said. "But this part of our life is really not that long, when you think about it. I mean, I’ve already been in seven years; it’s just flown by. So this time that we have right now, you’ve got to kind of get everything you can out of it.”
How are the lessons going with Oliver?
"He's getting there, he is getting there," Lotulelei said. "For the most part, he tries to listen to what the older guys are trying to say, what the coaches are trying to say. But at the same time, he knows the type of player that he is and what he expects from himself. So I wouldn’t expect him to sacrifice anything like that. I want him to have the confidence that he has. He’s a very confident player and I want him to keep that. So it’s just a matter of finding the middle ground between him understanding just the way he’s expected to play, what his job is, what his role is, and then just finding that middle ground of his confidence in his abilities and then just going out there and performing.
"He’s a young guy and that’s what you expect from rookies, from young guys coming in. It took me a while to learn that, so you’ve got to be fair and you’ve got to give them that time to kind of develop into (understanding) this is his job now, he just got paid a lot of money. But he’s learning."