This is the sixth in a series previewing each position on the Buffalo Bills before the July 25 start of training camp.
The Buffalo Bills lost one of the franchise’s all-time great leaders with the retirement of defensive tackle Kyle Williams.
But with the addition of first-round draft pick Ed Oliver, selected with the No. 9 overall pick out of Houston, the defensive line may be more talented today than last season.
The Bills return the rest of their defensive linemen from last season, including defensive ends Jerry Hughes, Trent Murphy and Shaq Lawson. And what Oliver lacks in experience, he’ll attempt to make up for with athleticism, as he works to adjust to the rigors of the NFL and anchor the interior of the Bills’ defensive line beside veteran defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and 2018 third-round pick Harrison Phillips.
The 6-foot-1-inch, 287-pound Oliver was named the 2017 Outland Trophy winner as the national top college interior defensive lineman and was widely projected among the top defensive players available in April’s draft.
He’ll join a front seven that returns every other starter from a year ago.
Returnees: Jerry Hughes, Trent Murphy, Shaq Lawson, Star Lotulelei, Harrison Phillips, Jordan Phillips, Eddie Yarbrough, Mike Love, Kyle Peko, Robert Thomas
Newcomers: Ed Oliver (draft, first round), Darryl Johnson (draft, seventh round), Eli Harold (Lions), L.T. Walton (Steelers)
Departures: Kyle Williams (retired)
Key numbers: The Bills finished last season with the NFL’s second-best defense by yards allowed. They were one of just three teams, along with the Ravens and Bears, to allow an average of fewer than 300 yards per game (294.1).
That ranking was largely the result of Buffalo surrendering the fewest passing yards of any team in the league, an average of just 179.2 yards per game. But the Bills’ pass rush didn't have much success getting to opposing quarterbacks. Their 36 sacks rated among the fewest in the league, better than only six other teams.
Pro Football Focus ranked the Bills' front seven the eighth-best in the league after the 2018 season. The analytics website highlighted the play of defensive end Jerry Hughes, who led the team with seven sacks, a modest total on its face, but excellent considering he “only” rushed the passer 375 times.
“On a per play basis, only Aaron Donald won more often as a pass rusher,” according to PFF, which cited Hughes’ pass rushing productivity as the best among edge rushers.
Buffalo's run defense was statistically middling, ranked 16th in the NFL after allowing an average of 114.9 rushing yards per game. It was particularly porous near the goal line. The Bills surrendered 17 rushing touchdowns, tied with three others for 25th-most in the league.
What to expect: Oliver hasn’t officially earned a starting job, but that’s a formality.
The defensive tackle wasn’t drafted in the top 10 to sit and watch, and he fills a glaring need after Williams retired following six Pro Bowl appearances in 13 NFL seasons.
The Bills are counting on Hughes, who turns 31 in August, to continue to provide pressure off the edge after signing him to a two-year, $21.5 million contract extension in May.
Fellow veteran defensive end Murphy enters his second season with the Bills and looks to improve on last year’s performance, his first season back on the field since tearing knee ligaments with Washington in August 2017.
Defensive end Lawson, the Bills’ first-round draft pick in 2016, is entering a contract year after the team declined to exercise its fifth-year option.
Lawson, 25, started six games last season and has just four sacks in each of the last two years. He’ll attempt to push Murphy for playing time, if not a starting job.
Harrison Phillips, the team’s third-round pick in 2018, could wrest a starting job from veteran defensive tackle Lotulelei. But both interior defensive linemen, along with defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, should heavily contribute this season.
Rookie defensive end Johnson, drafted in the seventh round (225th overall) out of North Carolina A&T, led the MEAC last season with 10.5 sacks and was named the FCS conference's defensive player of the year. He'll need to contribute on special teams to make the 53-man roster.