One big question for every Bills defensive position

How these questions get answered will have a huge impact on the Bills' 2020 season

Sal Capaccio
June 21, 2020 - 11:00 pm

There are a lot of unknowns going into every NFL season. As much as fans may feel confident in where the Buffalo Bills are headed in 2020, there are always questions that need to be answered and will ultimately determine the results of their season. 

Last week, I looked at one big question for every offensive position.

Here is one big question for each position on defense:

 

Defensive tackle: 

  • Who will be the odd-man out?

A look at the current defensive tackle depth chart reveals what could be a solid rotation of players, but not enough spots for everyone. Last year, the team kept four defensive tackles on the opening week roster. If they do that again this year, at least one notable name will be left out. Right now, they have Star Lotulelei, Ed Oliver, Quinton Jefferson, Harrison Phillips, Vernon Butler, and Vincent Taylor. That’s six players for four spots. Taylor would seem like the longest shot to make the roster, but he was active for three games last year and showed plenty of upside with the Miami Dolphins in 2018. Even if he doesn’t make it, there’s still one more person who won’t.  

This could all depend on the health of Harrison Phillips, who was off to a really strong start over the first few games, increasing his snap count each week, until tearing his ACL on the final drive against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 3. He was becoming a reliable run defender, who was clearly on an ascension in his second season, but his health and spot are now question marks.  

Butler was a first round pick by the Panthers just four years ago and has history with both head coach Sean McDermott and new defensive line coach Eric Washington, under whom he had a breakout year in 2019, collecting six sacks and 32 total tackles.

 

Defensive End:

  • Will the sacks come?

The Bills did a better job, overall, getting to the quarterback last season than most people probably realize. They finished 10th in the league with a sacks-per-pass-attempt rate of 7.96%. However, of the team’s 44 total sacks, only 17 of them came from the defensive end spot. The leader there, Shaq Lawson with 6.5, left for the Miami Dolphins via fee agency this offseason. That leaves 12 sacks from three ends - 5.0 from Trent Murphy, 4.5 from Jerry Hughes, and one from Darryl Johnson - which is a big reason they signed Mario Addison from the Panthers and drafted A.J. Epenesa with their first pick in April’s draft.  

Addison has been one of the most consistent defensive ends in football over the past four years, collecting 39 sacks, 11th-most in the NFL in that time period, never having less than nine. He’s also going to be 33-years-old at the start of next season, so there’s going to be questions about how well he can maintain that consistency.

Epenesa was highly productive as a pass rusher at Iowa, collecting 30.5 sacks over the last two years, but he’s a rookie and can’t be expected to come in and make a huge impact immediately on the stat sheet.

Last season, Jordan Phillips led the team with 9.5 sacks. He’s a defensive tackle. That took a bit of pressure off the ends having to get to the quarterback as much. But Phillips is gone, signing as a free agent with the Arizona Cardinals. Adding that to what Lawson produced, that’s 16 sacks out the door this offseason. The Bills will have to find a way to replace all of that, and in the process get more sack production out of their defensive end spot.

 

Linebacker:

  • Can Vosean Joseph and/or Tyrel Dodson make an impact?

The Bills play a lot of snaps with only two linebackers on the field, and we know those two will almost always be Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano at middle and weakside backer. The team signed A.J. Klein, who is versatile enough to back both of them up and also play the strong side when they want to play a three linebacker set. They also still have Corey Thompson, who’s seen action in 18 games in two seasons.

But the wild cards are Vosean Joseph and Tyrel Dodson. Johnson was drafted in the fifth round last year, played limited snaps in the preseason, then was injured late in the final preseason game and placed on injured reserve for the season. He’s fast and hits like a heat-seeking missile, but he also showed wildly undisciplined defensive tendencies on film at the University of Florida. 

Dodson had a strong preseason at middle linebacker, but he was put on the commissioner's exempt list prior to the season, then suspended six games by the league for a domestic violence arrest that occurred in May. Upon his reinstatement, he was waived by the club, but then signed to the practice squad where he spent the rest of the season, then signed to a future/reserve contract immediately after the season ended.

 

Cornerback:

  • Can Josh Norman recapture anything close to what he was in Carolina?

The Bills signed Norman in March just before the start of free agency after he had been released by the Washington Redskins. He spent four years in D.C. after becoming a household name in Carolina, where he shined for Bills head coach Sean McDermott, who was the Panthers defensive coordinator. But he clearly wasn’t the same in Washington, which led to his release this offseason.

The Redskins wanted Norman to be a No. 1 cornerback and paid him like it. The Bills don’t need him to play that role. They have Tre’Davious White on one side and need a solid No. 2 opposite him. But he’ll need to be much better than he was in Washington for the Bills to get the return on their one-year, $6 million investment, and for Norman to win the No. 2 corner job over Levi Wallace and E.J. Gaines.

 

Safety:

  • What happens if Micah Hyde or Jordan Poyer miss time?

Hyde and Poyer both played just about 94% of the defensive snaps last season. The year before that, Poyer played over 99%. There’s nothing to suggest either will leave the field at all this year either, but what if it happens? What if either get banged up and has to miss any time?

A look at the roster and it’s easy to say Siran Neal would be the first player in, but Neal is often used as a big nickel or even a slot cornerback. Dean Marlowe has been with McDermott going back to his Carolina days and can certainly step in as someone who knows the defense. Then there’s Jaquan Johnson, who was active for 13 games last season as a rookie, but didn’t play a single snap on defense until the regular season finale when other players sat or came out early. Johnson played well in that game, collecting three tackles and making a terrific interception that was called back via a penally. He’s only 5-foot-10 and isn’t a thumper, but he’s smart and takes good angles and always seemed to be in the right place while playing at the University of Miami, and even in the preseason last year. 

So it’s not that this position doesn’t have options for depth, but it someone has to step up and play significant snaps, it will be interesting who is called upon to do that and how that will impact the defense as a whole.


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