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Bills training camp questions: Is Trent Murphy's roster spot secure?

From the Bills training camp questions series
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Trent Murphy

Buffalo Bills defensive end Trent Murphy reacts to a sack against the New York Jets.

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This is the second in a series of questions entering Bills training camp, which is scheduled to open July 28. Today: Is Trent Murphy’s roster spot in jeopardy?

Trent Murphy is a critical piece of the Buffalo Bills’ defensive puzzle, based on everything the organization has said this offseason.

“We’re counting on Trent, for sure,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier told The News as the team’s spring meetings came to a close.

Circumstantial evidence has made Murphy’s expendability the subject of speculation this offseason.

The 29-year-old defensive end is in the final year of his contract. He has the fourth-largest salary cap hit on the team, at $9.7 million, and the team could save $8 million in cash and cap space by releasing him. The Bills used their top draft pick to select a player – A.J. Epenesa - who looms as Murphy’s eventual replacement. And the Bills have a logjam of 10 “well-credentialed” players on the defensive line.

Yet there are plenty of circumstances that point in Murphy’s favor. Who did the Bills’ coaches trust the most last year at left defensive end? Murphy. He started all 17 games ahead of Shaq Lawson and played 64.5% of the defensive snaps, second only on the defensive line to Jerry Hughes.

Murphy finished the season strong, with six sacks over the last six games, including two in the playoff loss to Houston. He is excellent at setting the edge against the run. He’s assignment sound. And he exemplifies the blue-collar, hard-work, team-first culture that coach Sean McDermott values so greatly.

Bottom line: It sure sounds like Murphy figures prominently once again in the Bills’ defensive plans.

After sitting out the 2017 season with a major knee injury, Murphy was nagged by injuries in 2018 and had four sacks for the Bills. Last year he had five sacks in the regular season.

“He did some good things for us last year,” Frazier said. “He was so close to getting back to being a double-digit sack guy coming off that knee injury. That was his first full season under his belt, coming off that injury from the season before, so you expect this next year for Trent to take another jump. We’re counting on it.”

That’s what you call conviction from the coach.

“We need him to play really well for us, especially losing Shaq Lawson in free agency,” Frazier said. “Trent’s the guy that really has to hold that position down and take another step for us and get some pressure on that quarterback opposite Jerry Hughes. And if that’s the case, it’s going to make our defense that much better. But we’re counting on Trent, for sure.”

Murphy had just one sack in the first 11 games. Besides the six sacks in the last six games, half his 42 pressures came from the Week 13 game (at Dallas), through the playoff game. Thanks to his stout run defense, Murphy ranked 35th overall among NFL defensive ends on the Pro Football Focus list.

New Bills defensive line coach Eric Washington indicates that the opportunities are there for Murphy to be a better finisher in the quest to get more sacks.

“I've challenged the group and I've challenged every individual in the group to look at themselves,” Washington said. “Some of the time it's just about awareness. ‘Hey, Trent, look at this.’ And as he sees himself rushing the quarterback, with his length and his speed, there's some things that you can do to put yourself in a better position, there's some things that you can do from a habit standpoint to take yourself out of position.”

Without getting specific, Washington sees ways Murphy can improve.

“And there's something that's been recurring and coming up, and he sees it, and we're excited about getting on the grass and making that more of a habit, more of a reflex,” the coach said. “I'm going to keep that to myself, because I don't want to put that out there, but we've looked at it and I'm excited about working with him and it's going to be pretty good.”

The Bills kept nine defensive linemen on the 53-man roster over the final nine games of last season. On normal down and distances, the expectation is Hughes and Mario Addison will share time at right defensive end, while Murphy and Epenesa rotate at left defensive end. On key third-down passing situations, the coaches will have flexibility to put Hughes and Addison on the field together and mix and match combinations.

How might Murphy’s spot be jeopardized? If Epenesa or young Darryl Johnson were to have an amazing summer, maybe the Bills would view Murphy as expendable. But how much chance will young players get to “break out” if there’s a limited preseason (or none at all)?

Washington already recognizes the positive impact Murphy brings to the team’s culture.

“Trent is a tough guy, bona fide tough guy,” Washington said. “Cares a lot. Intelligent. It matters to him, it's important. He's a lead-by-example guy.”

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Bills/NFL writer

Gaughan's insight is featured in the "PlayAction" video series, providing analysis to get Bills fans ready for the next game. He is past president of the Pro Football Writers of America and served as a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector for 12 years.

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