Sal's AFC East position battles: Defensive line

The Bills have a bit of everything up front

Sal Capaccio
July 08, 2019 - 10:38 pm

Photo: Hannah Foslien - Getty Images


For my first installment of AFC East position battles on the defensive side of the ball, I take a look at the defensive line for each team in the division. This is a tougher exercise for this position group because each team plays a different type of defense or uses their personnel differently. So even if two teams run a 4–3, the way they line guys up and move parts around can really change how the defense looks and acts.

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Nevertheless, here are each team's defensive line units in the tweet I put out asking for your feedback. Feel free to comment and rank yourself if you already haven’t.

Here are my rankings of these groups:


1.) Buffalo Bills

The Buffalo Bills lost one of their all-time franchise best defensive linemen, Kyle Williams, when he retired at the end of last season. All they did was go out and replace them with one of the top interior defensive linemen in all of college football, drafting Ed Oliver ninth overall. He obviously has a lot to prove, but he’s a solid addition to an already solid group up front with different traits and skill sets. Star Lotulelei doesn’t show up a lot on the stat sheet, but does exactly what the team signed him for, which is help against the run up the middle and occupy blockers to allow linebackers to roam free. Oliver probably won’t even start to begin his rookie year because the team re-signed Jordan Phillips, a solid former second round pick himself. Harrison Phillips will be the fourth player in that rotation. The biggest question and X-factor, not only on the defensive line but maybe the entire defense, is the health of Trent Murphy. The defensive end missed some time last preseason and then again in the regular season with injuries, and that hurt their pass rush. However, when he was healthy, he showed flashes of why the team signed him to a lucrative free agent deal. Speaking of deals, Jerry Hughes re-signed to stay in Buffalo for the next three years. He is still impacting the game from his position and is in great shape to continue to do that. Although he hasn’t lived up to his first round pick status, Shaq Lawson had his best overall season last year, and there are a lot of teams that would like to have a backup of his caliber.


2.) New York Jets

Admittedly, I think I am punishing the New York Jets simply for running a 3-4 and not having the type of defensive ends that impact the passing game like the Bills have, or at least can do. The Jets do have a lot of talent up front in their three starters. If Leonard Williams had played to his draft hype from a few years ago (and by the way I absolutely loved him myself coming out of college), I may have them No. 1 overall here. But he hasn’t, and that also knocks them down a bit. While the Bills drafted Oliver, the Jets got this year’s consensus top defensive lineman from college football in Quinnen Williams. Joining them is a very underrated Henry Anderson, who had seven sacks last season after coming over from the Indianapolis Colts via trade. Steve McLendon most likely moves from starter to backup with the addition of Quinnen Williams, and that’s a fine spot for the solid run-stopping 33-year old. After him, it’s dicey. The Jets have a lot of inexperience and may have to trust players in roles they aren’t ready for or at least the team isn’t really sure of yet. 


3.) New England Patriots

The New England Patriots' group is much more about the sum of their parts than the top-end talent. However, Michael Bennett is the best of the bunch and has been a very productive player. He’s had at least five sacks in each of his last seven seasons, including nine last year with the Philadelphia Eagles. Outside of Bennett, the Patriots will be searching for more pass rush help after losing Trey Flowers via free agency. Deatrich Wise, Jr. did have 4.5 sacks last year, but will be expected to take on a bigger role. Chase Winovich was a highly productive college player at Michigan, but will be a rookie and can’t be expected to make a huge impact right away. Derek Rivers was seeing time with the first team during minicamp. He missed his entire rookie season in 2017 due to a torn ACL and played only six games last year, recording one sack. John Simon is a journeyman going into his second season in New England. On the interior, Lawrence Guy and Mike Pennel will probably start, with space-eater Danny Shelton rotating. All are run-stoppers first and offer little in the pass rush department. Adam Butler can help in that area, but he’s purely a backup and situational player.


4.) Miami Dolphins

The Miami Dolphins will be more of a hybrid-defense in 2019, incorporating both 3-4 and 4-3 at times. They have very little pass rush to speak of, at least on paper, headed into 2019. Last year, the Dolphins had Cameron Wake, Robert Quinn, and Andre Branch up front. All are gone now. That’s 14 sacks out the door and replaced by plenty of unknown and inexperience. Charles Harris has only started two games since being selected 22nd overall in 2017. He has three career sacks. He’ll take on a much bigger role now. On the other edge is Jonathan Woodard, who has played in only six NFL games - all last year with Miami after being with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Atlanta Falcons organizations. Tank Carradine comes to South Florida after spending four years with the San Francisco 49ers and one with the Oakland Raiders, where he played one game last year and has a total 1.5 sacks over the last three seasons. The team drafted defensive tackle Christian Wilkins with their first pick of this past draft, 13th overall. He should start right away. Wilkins starting most likely bumps Akeem Spence to a reserve role after starting all 16 games last year. Next to him will most likely be Davon Godchaux, a third year player who started all 16 games last year, as well. Vincent Taylor has yet to start an NFL game, but should see plenty of time in the rotation.  

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