Trent Murphy joked at the end of the 2018 season that he needed an extra roll of duct tape to get through his first year with the Buffalo Bills.
Managing to play 13 games ended up being an accomplishment for Murphy, who was coming back from the torn ACL that caused him to miss all of the 2017 season with Washington. Complicating matters were groin, ankle and knee injuries that, even if they didn’t keep him off the field entirely, kept him at less than 100%.
All of that is behind Murphy this summer. He’s worked exclusively with the first team throughout the preseason, and is expected to do so again Friday night against the Detroit Lions in the “dress rehearsal” for the regular season.
"I think it’s been a huge difference. You think back to a season ago where he missed so much time during training camp and missed a lot of the offseason just because of rehabbing an injury and not being 100%,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. “You see his play now. … His aggressiveness, his speed, his tempo, everything is a little bit different now because he’s more sure of himself because of where he is in the process when it comes to his injury. We’re looking for big things from Trent this season and so far, so good with the way training camp and the offseason program has gone for him. He’s looking pretty good.”
Frazier pointed to a fourth-down sack against the Carolina Panthers in the second preseason game as proof. With Carolina facing a fourth and 2 from the Bills’ 18-yard line, Murphy lined up at left defensive end across from Panthers right tackle Taylor Moton. Off the snap, Murphy used a perfect spin move to get by Moton and got just enough of quarterback Kyle Allen for a sack that caused a turnover on downs.
Preseason or not, it was a big play, and just what the Bills expected when they gave him a three-year contract worth up to $22.5 million.
Murphy, 28, wasn’t able to do as much of that as he wanted last year. In addition to the injuries, he was also adjusting to a new defense. Washington ran a base 3-4 scheme, but coach Sean McDermott utilizes a 4-3 in Buffalo. The Bills’ front office and coaching staff knew that the transition for Murphy would not always be smooth.
"We felt like we could anticipate the type of year maybe that he would go through and the challenges he would go through,” McDermott said this week. “What we see now and when he came back in the spring, was a player that had worked. Not that he didn’t work before, but he’s not thinking solely about his knee, now he’s thinking about his whole body and he can focus on himself with that in mind as opposed to one area of his body. He’s more comfortable in the system, as well. He’s been a great addition to our team. He continues to grow and understanding his role in defense and how you have to play.”
Even if the coaching staff was understanding of his situation, it still didn’t sit well with Murphy. He consistently graded his own performance more harshly than the coaching staff did.
"I'm always significantly harder, just because I know what I can do,” he said. “I never want to let the guy next to me or behind me down, so I was definitely hard on myself last year, for sure. I felt like I always could have done more and wanted to do more, so I tried to push my body to its limits.”
That came with plenty of mental stress. It’s easy for a player who is hurt to get down on himself, which Murphy admits happened at times in 2018. That’s why he made it a point this offseason to focus only on what he could control. Murphy spent the offseason in Phoenix, training with Shaq Lawson — the player he split snaps with last season.
"It's been much different. Taking care of my body and my mental health has been like night and day, really,” Murphy said, comparing where he’s at now as opposed to a year ago. “It makes it easy to not have to think about 'meaty' things at all. I can just think about, ‘how can I help the team? How do I do my job better?’ Being able to put all my focus there makes it very easy to be coached and to coach myself and lead by example. It's a much better starting point for me.”
Murphy ended up playing 43 percent of the Bills’ defensive snaps in 2018. He had 24 tackles (including five for losses), four sacks and 21 pass-rushing pressures. His best season came in 2016 for Washington, when he had 46 tackles (including 10 for losses), nine sacks and 55 pressures, according to analytics website Pro Football Focus.
If Murphy can recapture that 2016 form, it promises to be a big boost for a Buffalo defense that is looking to increase its sack total this season.
"Trent just looks more comfortable,” defensive tackle Star Lotulelei said. “He's not worried about injuries or anything like that. He's playing with a lot more confidence, as well. His nine-sack year, I think he's feeling that same confidence coming into this year. Trent's a professional. He comes in every day and works hard. Most of the time when we're rushing we're on the same side, so he's always talking to me about little things that we can do.”