The Buffalo Bills traded away former first-round pick Marcel Dareus last season and brought in Star Lotulelei this free agency to fill that gap. Kyle Williams is back, but how much does the 35-year old still have to contribute?
In 2017, the Bills' defense ranked 29th against the run and allowed the most rushing touchdowns of any team. If the Bills want to make another run at a playoff spot, they will need to be more stout in the middle. The plan is for Lotulelei and Williams to start at defensive tackle, but the depth will be key as Williams' defensive snap percentage has gone down from 74% in 2016 to 68.5% in 2017.
Lotulelei is 29 and is coming off a season where he only recorded 6 solo tackles. The Bills felt comfortable enough to offer him a 5-year $50 million deal. The price was steep, but when it comes to top-end free agents, the price will always be too high. However, it is hard to value defensive tackles when most of their work is to eat space and plug gaps. That is what Lotulelei is known for and it should allow for Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano to use their athleticism from the linebacker positions to make plays near the line.
Sean McDermott is familiar with Lotulelei and he actually had his most productive seasons under McDermott. Lotulelei recorded 21 solo tackles his rookie year when McDermott was leading the Panthers defense and he will look to return to that form. Over his 5-year career, Lotulelei has 11.5 sacks.
Williams remained an important contributor for the Bills in 2017. His total tackles took a dip from 64 to 41 and his sacks decreased from 5 to 3, but his role was still vital with Dareus gone. The Bills relied on a rotation of guys, but Williams was leaned on most.
The second most productive defensive tackle in 2017 was Adolphus Washington. He increased his total tackles from 21 in 2016 to 33 in 2017 and added 3.5 sacks. Washington is a big boy at 6'4", but is still very athletic coming in at 295 lbs. The Bills would like Washington to continue his progression and he should be able to earn some of Williams' snaps.
In the third-round of the 2018 draft, Bills superfan Pancho Billa announced that the Bills selected Harrison Phillips out of Stanford. Phillips has the potential to be the steal of the draft. In 2016 as a sophomore, Phillips had 46 stops and 6.5 sacks. He followed that up by leading the team in tackles with 103 and added 7.5 sacks. Phillips was named to the first-team All-Pac12 and a third-team All-American.
Phillips comes from a background in wrestling. This allows him to use his leverage very well and to seemingly get off blocks when he wants. In wrestling, Phillips was considered a scrambler. This has given Phillips a great amount of athleticism to translate onto the football field. Phillips generates a lot of power out of his hips which allows him to torque blockers away and to be able to get himself free of blocks.
That makes four defensive tackles locks for the roster. The Bills then would likely have to decide whether to have a fifth defensive tackle on the roster or to keep an extra defensive end.
The Bills brought in Tony Palepoi to add some depth at the position. Palepoi had 24 total tackles for the Chargers in 2017 as a rotational player. At 6'1" 300 lbs., Palepoi has the potential to earn a roster spot, but will have to show it early.
Rickey Hatley and Marquavius Lewis are holdovers from last season, but they had a combined 1 total tackle. Lewis is more versatile with his size, whereas Hatley has more of a nose tackle physique at 6'4" 320 lbs. I do not see a way that these guys earn a spot on the roster unless there are injuries during camp.
If the Bills plan to contend in 2018, they will need to play much better against the run. They were hurt over and over by teams who bullied them for first-downs right up the middle. If Phillips and Lotulelei can make immediate impacts, they should be much better against the run. Those guys are great at eating up blockers to keep their linebackers free. We shall see starting July 26th how Head Coach McDermott and Defensive Coordinator Leslie Frazier plan on deploying their defensive tackles.