(WKBW) — As the sting from the end of the 2018 season starts to lessen for the Buffalo Bills, the reality of the offseason begins for the front office and coaching staff. And in doing so, they're putting together a strategy of how to navigate the offseason -- from free agency to the 2019 NFL Draft.
As the weeks pass by teams, get closer and closer to the annual offseason deadlines. In preparation, 7ABC will take an in-depth look at the current roster while evaluating what happened in 2018, what it could tell us as to the team's plans for 2019, and some author recommendations of how to march forward. The grades attached to each player is the result of an in-depth film study done by 7ABC every week through the 2018 season.
Up next, we'll head back to the defense and touch on a sneaky need in the 2019 offseason, defensive tackle:
2018 In Review
*In order of 2018 grade with 200 snaps or more
3TDT Kyle Williams
2018 Season GPA: 2.82 (Snap Count: 657)
2019 Contract Status: Retired
Age: 35 (6/10/1983)
- Fittingly, as the year wore on and some of the performances of his younger teammates were starting to deteriorate, Williams was thriving and improving down the stretch of the season. Of course, it culminated with the final game of his career in a win over Miami, and Williams had a few memories along the way. However, in 2018, Williams leveled around the ability of an above average starter which is frankly remarkable considering that he was into his 13th season. He was solid against the run and flashed the ability of old every once again while serving as a stop-gap solution at a vital position in Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier's defense. If there was one thing missing from Williams' game in his final season, it was the ability to penetrate the backfield on passes. He worked well in unison with Jerry Hughes, but when it was him against one offensive lineman, the pressure on the quarterback wasn't consistent enough. Still, Williams remained the best defensive tackle on the roster at the ripe age of 35 years old, and the Bills will miss both his ability and leadership in the locker room.
1TDT Harrison Phillips
2018 Season GPA: 2.81 (Snap Count: 390)
2019 Contract Status: $802,760 cap hit, signed through 2021
Age: 22 (1/25/1996)
- For a long time, it seemed as though Harrison Phillips would wind up the top graded defensive tackle on this roundup. Through his first four games, Phillips burst on to the scene with a 3.01 GPA -- which was good enough to be ranked in the top ten performers on the team over that stretch. Heck, even through his first 12 games, Phillips sustained a 2.92 GPA which was still atop the defensive tackle class. However, you know that clichéd 'rookie wall' you always hear about for first-year players not used to a 16-game season? Well, it came for Harrison Phillips in a big way. Over the rookie's final four games, the third-round selection had a tough time regaining his form from early in the season, winding up with a 2.42 GPA -- a considerable drop-off from the player we saw through the first three-quarters of the season. However, there is a lot to like outside of those final four games. Phillips was at his best standing up at the point of attack and holding one-to-two blockers on their spot to help his teammates make a play -- the essence of a true one-technique defensive tackle. Phillips also flashed the ability to penetrate from the one-technique position as well, which is an asset to withhold and harness if you're a team that employs the defensive scheme that the Bills run. Before Jordan Phillips came around, Harrison Phillips would even chip in at three-technique, though the Bills appear inclined and convinced that Phillips best position is as that block-eating one-technique. Despite his drop in production down the stretch, the potential remains for the former third-round pick.
1TDT Star Lotulelei
2018 Season GPA: 2.79 (Snap Count: 476)
2019 Contract Status: $11.5 million cap hit, signed through 2022
Age: 29 (12/20/1989)
- As it stands today, the Bills do not have a 2019 cap hit higher than the one attributed to defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. That fact has led some fans to grow frustrated with Lotulelei over his lack of a discernible impact. While his season wasn't as productive as you'd like to see even from a one-technique defensive tackle making that much money, he was far from being the problem that some would seem to indicate that he was in 2018. Lotulelei helped bring a steadiness to a position on the defense that was in dire need of it based on 2017. Last year, the Bills were horrid against the run because they were getting blown off the ball featuring the defensive tackle duo of Cedric Thornton and Adolphus Washington. Lotulelei showed his ability to hold up blockers well, flashed some unexpected short-area quickness, and impressive reaction time to the snap on some plays. For those hung up on the money aspect, I understand to a certain degree -- but here's how I look at it. Ideally, you have money allocated for each position. Now, for the defensive tackle spot the usual 'money' position in this defense is the three-technique, but since the Bills don't have that player on the roster right now, they dished out their allocated defensive tackle cap room on a one-technique they knew they could trust to bring stability to a dire need on the defense. Based on the Carolina blueprint, I would expect the Bills to use a high pick in the next two seasons on a three-technique defensive tackle, and by the time that player ideally develops and needs to get paid, the Lotulelei contract will be off the books. As long as Lotulelei continues to be an above average player at least for the Bills, there are more significant fires on the roster to put out at this point.
3TDT Jordan Phillips
2018 Season GPA: 2.72 (Snap Count: 268)
2019 Contract Status: Unrestricted free agent
Age: 26 (10/15/1992)
- Following a 1-3 start to the season, the Bills were in the position to successfully claim former third-round pick Jordan Phillips off of waivers -- and boy, were they glad it happened that way. There are times in a game that Phillips can take over the line of scrimmage, both by penetrating the backfield on passing plays and in thwarting runs at the line of scrimmage by whipping his blocker aside. When Phillips is on, he's on. The trouble is in the consistency, not in the flash plays. With his size and movement, Phillips will continue to be able to make plays in a game at times, though you'd like to see him have a full game of dominance before you'd consider giving him a big contract with the role of being a starter tied to that. Adolphus Washington was far more inconsistent for the Bills than Phillips, but it's a bit of the same phenomenon. If you flash the ability occasionally, is there the chance it can turn into a dominant player? That's what the Bills will have to wrestle with in their decision on Phillips.
Players with less than 200 snaps
3TDT Robert Thomas
2018 Season GPA: 2.67 (Snap Count: 18)
2019 Contract Status: Signed to reserve/futures contract on December 31.
Age: 27 (2/18/1991)
- The Bills gave Thomas a three-week stint on the active roster as the backup three-technique to Kyle Williams, up until they claimed Jordan Phillips off waivers in Week Five. Though coming in a small package, the Bills were impressed with Thomas enough to bring him back to the practice squad, hold him there for the entire 2018 season, and then to sign him to a reserve/futures deal a day after the season ended.
*Kyle Peko was on the practice squad starting in Week Two and was brought back on a reserve/futures contract for 2019.
**Adolphus Washington played 32 snaps for the Bills before being released in Week Two
Recommendations for 2019
1) If a top name falls, consider using the 9th overall pick on a 3TDT
- A day after the season ended, general manager Brandon Beane declared that he refused to draft only by need because that's how teams get in trouble long-term. That was all the confirmation that you need to conclude that the Bills won't lock into using the ninth overall selection on an offensive player if there is a superior talent on the board when they're on the clock. In this year's draft class, it seems particularly strong along the defensive line -- with a group of players that fit the profile for the Bills on paper at three-technique defensive tackle. It's still too early to tell, but with three quarterbacks that could draw some top ten consideration, that means the possibility exists that someone like Houston's Ed Oliver or Alabama's Quinnen Williams could be available for the Bills at a significant position of need. Finding a disruptive interior lineman is vital to McDermott and Frazier's defense, especially with how weak the guard and center play is around the entire league. It's the quickest path to the backfield and can take attention away from both rushers off the edge, along with any blitzing linebackers, cornerbacks, or safeties that they scheme. If one of those two is available at ninth overall, don't be surprised to see the Bills strike given the talent, the need, and the importance of the position to the defense.
2) Re-sign Jordan Phillips, but with a catch
- Considering the importance of having not one, but two players that can contribute at the three-technique position, having only Robert Thomas signed for 2019 is entirely problematic. For that reason, I believe the Bills need to re-sign Jordan Phillips -- but with a caveat. I think it would be to the Bills' advantage to make it a one-year agreement. The incentive for the Bills is that it keeps Phillips motivated to show that his big flashes can become more consistent -- especially with the potential of free agency around the corner, and with a big enough role for Phillips, it could even put them in the realm for a solid compensatory pick for a player they merely claimed off waivers. The incentive for Phillips is that there is a real possibility that if he re-signs, he could wind up being the best player the Bills have at three-technique heading into the 2019 season which would potentially up his value, putting him in line for a more significant payday in the 2020 offseason. There is no guarantee that the Bills will or could draft a defensive tackle at Phillips' position with the ninth-overall pick, which means this is a short-term marriage that makes sense for everyone.
3) Focus on the development of Harrison Phillips
- Over the first 12 games of the season, there was enough evidence from the performance of third-round rookie Harrison Phillips that pointed to a potential long-term starter down the line. With his first official NFL offseason to reset and focus on Bills' specific planning -- rather than preparing for the NFL Draft -- this is a good chance for him to take the next step in his career. The Bills feel content with the current rotation at one-technique between Lotlulelei and Phillips, but with the former being 29 years old, the Bills are hoping that the latter eventually takes over the starting role by the time his rookie contract is through in 2021. The way Lotulelei's contract is set up, the earliest they could conceivably get out from underneath it would be in the 2020 offseason. In 2020, the Bills would save $2.3 million on the salary cap while taking a dead money hit of $7.8 million. Past that, it gets a lot more stomachable. In the 2021 offseason, the Bills would save $5.65 million and have a $5.2 million dead money hit by releasing Lotulelei. Then in 2022, the Bills would save $8.25 million while only incurring a dead cap hit of $2.6 million. So while Lotulelei is here to stay for the foreseeable future, developing a potential down-the-line starter in Phillips should be a high priority this offseason, spring, and summer.
**All contract information aggregated from the Buffalo Bills media guide and Spotrac.com