Greg Rousseau and Carlos Basham Jr. represent Brandon Beane’s latest high-profile attempts to get it right along the defensive line.
The Buffalo Bills’ general manager has sunk significant resources into building the front four, both through free agency and the draft. To date, however, those resources have not translated into the desired production.
It won’t be on Rousseau and Basham to change that on their own in 2021, but they need to be a big part of the solution going forward.
In three of Beane’s four years running the draft, he’s used his first selection on a defensive lineman. Rousseau follows fellow defensive end A.J. Epenesa, who was chosen in the second round of the 2019 draft (the Bills traded away their first-round pick as part of a package for wide receiver Stefon Diggs), a year after Beane used the No. 9 overall pick on defensive tackle Ed Oliver. Defensive tackle Harrison Phillips was also chosen in the third round of Beane’s first draft in 2018.
That’s on top of the money spent in free agency – which has been substantial. In each of the past two seasons, the Bills have devoted a bigger percentage of spending to the defensive line than any other team in the league. In 2019, that accounted for 22.8% of their cap and increased to 23.2% in 2020, according to contracts website spotrac.com.
That 2020 total doesn’t even include defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who opted out of the season due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Still, the Bills had more than $51 million devoted to 10 defensive linemen. Edge rusher Mario Addison counted $9.968 million against the cap, followed by Trent Murphy ($9.775 million), Jerry Hughes ($9.5 million), Vernon Butler ($7.368 million), Quinton Jefferson ($7 million) and Oliver ($4.4 million).
It can be argued none of them provided adequate return on investment. Addison had his contract reworked, voiding the 2022 season and taking nearly a $2 million pay cut to return in 2021. Murphy probably should have been cut before the 2020 season. He spent the second half of the year as an expensive healthy inactive and remains unsigned as an unrestricted free agent. Butler also agreed to a pay cut of $2 million – or else he might have been on the chopping block. Jefferson was cut with a year remaining on his contract.
The Bills’ most consistent member of their defensive line has annually been Hughes, who was acquired way before Beane and head coach Sean McDermott came to town (although, to its credit, the current regime did give the veteran defensive end a contract extension). Since 2018, Hughes ranks sixth among edge defenders in total pressures (175), according to analytics website Pro Football Focus, but is tied for 42nd in sacks (16.0).
As a team, the Bills actually generated a 25% pressure rate in 2.5 seconds or less, according to PFF, a number that ranked second in the NFL behind Pittsburgh. That pressure rate helped produce 38 sacks, which ranked tied for 15th.
In the days that followed the Bills’ loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game, Beane and McDermott mentioned the improvements they saw along the defensive line as the season went on. A truncated training camp and no preseason didn’t make things easy for defensive line coach Eric Washington and assistant Jacques Cesaire, but there was a general belief the group eventually hit its stride.
“It was a slow start, but I thought the second half of the year, they really started affecting the quarterback and affecting the whole defense to a positive nature,” Beane said.
Of course, when it mattered most, the pass rush came up small. Despite being hobbled by a toe injury, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was sacked just once in the AFC title game. When compared to what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did against the Chiefs in the Super Bowl, it became abundantly clear the Bills’ pass rush has to get better.
“That’s a critical area for our football team to improve,” McDermott acknowledged in the days that followed. "We have to be able to affect the quarterback with a four-man rush. I thought at times we did that and other times we could have been better, just like our entire defense or entire football team. So there’s still meat on the bone there.”
Rousseau and Basham represent the biggest moves made to inject life into that pass rush. The Bills signed former Panthers edge rusher Efe Obada in free agency, reuniting him with Washington, who was his defensive coordinator in Carolina, but that move alone didn't figure to spur the change McDermott sought.
Rousseau might. He had 15.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman for Miami in 2019 before opting out of the 2020 season because of the pandemic. Although he has just one season of production, Beane is confident there is much more to come.
“He uses his get-off and length to affect the passer, whether it’s just engulfing or he had several plays where he got the sack because he’s being blocked and reaches around and causes a fumble of the quarterback,” the GM said. “Again, his pass rush stuff will improve. He needs to improve his counters and things like that. But again, a one-year player, he’s got a knack for getting to the quarterback. A lot of guys can get off and rush but they don’t necessarily have the feel to how to get the quarterback down or the instincts. Greg is an instinctive player. He’s just a young player that we think has a ton of upside and will fit in here well.”
The same goes for Basham, who was a first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection in 2019 when he finished with 11 sacks. He had five sacks in seven games in 2020, despite missing time while recovering from Covid-19.
Hughes will be 33 and Addison 34 before the start of the 2021 season. Each is entering the final year of his contract.
"Greg Rousseau, Carlos Basham, we've talked about it before, we rotate our D-linemen. I'm not going to promise either one of them a starting job, but they're going to have an opportunity to start," Beane said. "Yeah, I expect them to be part of the game-day rotation of our crew."