This is the fifth part of a series looking at 10 questions facing the Bills entering training camp, which begins July 25. Today's question: Can first-round draft pick Ed Oliver adjust quickly to the NFL?
Bills rookie defensive tackle Ed Oliver is shrugging off the lofty expectations of others as he prepares for his first NFL training camp.
“I’m a new guy that don’t know nothing about nothing, so I’m just learning,” Oliver said last month during the team’s voluntary offseason workouts. “I don’t expect to know it all by the end of training camp. I don’t expect to know it all by the end of Year 3. I just expect to get better and better every day and help the team any way possible.”
Oliver, selected with the ninth overall pick in the first round of April’s draft, is slated to replace Kyle Williams as a starter on the Bills’ defensive line and could represent an immediate upgrade — at least in terms of athletic ability — over the six-time Pro Bowler, who retired in December after 13 seasons.
Oliver joins an experienced group that includes veteran defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and second-year pro Harrison Phillips, who are likely to compete for the starting job beside him, as well as starting defensive ends Trent Murphy and Jerry Hughes.
Bills rookies report Monday for the start of training camp at St. John Fisher College in Rochester. The veterans report July 24. The first practice is scheduled for July 25.
“The learning curve part for Ed is not only picking up our system and grasping that but coming to the National Football League, as well,” Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said during voluntary offseason workouts. “For instance, one of the things that you have to be able to deal with is this locker room is just so different from what he came from at the University of Houston. The competition is different, so there’s a learning curve when it comes to that.
“There are some guys who can match up a little bit better than some of the people that he played against in college, so you have to be able to get through that. Then you throw in what we’re doing from a defensive standpoint, that’s a different scheme than the scheme that he came from. Being able to grasp that and being able to go out there and play fast.
“You need a guy like Star or even a guy like Harrison, who has gone through it just a year ago, to talk to you and help you get through some of those days where you start to wonder if you’re ever going to get it. So, you need that and we’re fortunate to have some veteran guys in that meeting room to help him along the way.”
Oliver played nose tackle in Houston’s 3-4 defensive front, a less than ideal position for the 6-foot-1, 287-pound lineman. But he managed to overcome regular double teams to have a tremendous impact, recording 13.5 sacks and 53 tackles for loss in 32 college games.
Oliver appears well-suited for the shift to 4-3 defensive tackle, where he’ll be asked to bolster a Bills run defense that ranked middle-of-the-pack last season, and use his quick first step to knife into the backfield to pressure opposing quarterbacks.
The Bills ranked second in the NFL in average yards allowed per game (294.1) last season and were first against the pass (179.2). But their 36 combined sacks ranked just 26th in the league.
Williams’ five sacks last season were third-most on the team behind Hughes, who had seven, and linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who had 6.5.
Alexander said he was impressed by Oliver during organized team activities.
“Obviously, we haven’t put pads on and stuff,” Alexander said, “but you can tell he’s explosive, has a lot of natural ability, and you just want to continue to be able to grow on that, football IQ and stuff. … And by the time the season starts, you want him to be primed up and ready to go to be able to last 16 games.
“The way he looks, he looks impressive. But obviously once the pads get on you can really tell how really good he’s going to be. But from what I can see and what I’ve seen so far, he’s on the right trajectory.”
Oliver had drawn comparisons to Aaron Donald before a drop in production during his final season at Houston, and expectations from some outside the Bills’ organization remain sky high.
In May, NFL.com named Oliver the top contender to win rookie of the year.
Bleacher Report projects Oliver to lead the league in tackles for loss, edging J.J. Watt.
And Oliver has the second-highest Madden rating of any defensive rookie in the game, behind only New York Jets defensive lineman Quinnen Williams, who was drafted with the third overall pick.
Murphy was thrilled the Bills used a top-10 pick to select a fellow defensive lineman. And, like Alexander, he was impressed with Oliver during offseason workouts. But his expectations are tempered.
“I never give rookies the benefit of the doubt,” Murphy said. “A lot of talent, great dude, excited to have him in the room. But he’s got a lot of work to do.”
Bills defensive end Shaq Lawson, drafted 19th overall in 2016, offered Oliver a bit of advice heading into offseason workouts.
“I told him as a first-round pick, there’s pressure on you,” Lawson said. “But don’t be coming out here stressed every day. Know you’re still young, you’re a rookie. But they expect you to make an impact from the jump as a first rounder. It’s a challenge because you know you want to be that guy. You know, you got drafted.
“But I told him, ‘Man, just take it one day at a time.’ He’s a great kid. He’s going to be a hell of a player. I see a Pro Bowler in him. He’s so fast and quick and everything. He’s got the ability to be a Hall of Fame defensive lineman, because he’s got everything that you need: fast twitch, pass-rush moves and play with low pads.”
Oliver said he isn’t concerned with others’ expectations at this stage of his development.
And he’s not ready to set definitive goals for himself.
“There’s no pressure,” Oliver said, “as long as I get better at something. I’m a young guy. I don’t know left from right, as far as the NFL is concerned, so as long as I get better and take it day by day, step by step, I’ll be all right.”