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Joe B: Buffalo Bills post-draft breakdown -- Defense

Posted at 11:14 AM, May 02, 2019

(WKBW) — The NFL Draft is now over with, and while the Buffalo Bills added some pieces through the annual selection process, there were also some positions that they weren't able to add. As is always the case after the draft, recalibration of the roster is a significant piece to the puzzle -- especially with spring workouts beginning in just a few weeks.

Defensively, things have mostly remained the same, and there hasn't been anywhere close to as many moves made as what's gone on with the offense. However, the Bills made a few key offseason moves to see if that can bring the defense to another level.

A detailed breakdown of how each position looks on defense:

Defensive End (7)
Jerry Hughes, Trent Murphy, Shaq Lawson, Eddie Yarbrough, Eli Harold, Darryl Johnson, Mike Love

Biggest Strength: Jerry Hughes
- Hughes is the poster child for the argument of sacks being an entirely overrated measure of just how effective and impactful a defensive end can be. Hughes had a total of seven sacks in 16 games in 2018, but for the second straight season, Hughes was one of my top-graded players on the roster. Why the disparity? It's all the ways he has improved, and how he helps his teammates get situations to make plays. For two years Hughes has remained the only real threat to put consistent pressure on the quarterback. Even though he's impacting the pocket and forcing the quarterback off of his spot, there hasn't been a consistent second-push from the rest of the line to finish the play. As a result, Hughes found himself getting chipped or flat-out double-teamed a considerable amount, which allowed for his teammates to have one-on-one matchups to win. Despite the sacks not being there, Hughes has been worth every penny of his contract, which expires following the 2019 season.

Biggest Question: Will Trent Murphy provide a spark from the left side?
- The Bills still have Hughes bringing pressure from the right side of the defense, and they hope their first-round pick will help from the inside, but getting consistent pressure from the left side is still a question mark. That's where Trent Murphy comes in, who was one of the team's free agent splashes in the 2018 offseason. Hoping that Murphy could regain the form from the 2016 season, in which he collected nine sacks for Washington. Last season had to be a frustrating one for Murphy, who after sitting out the entire 2017 season due to injury, endured nagging injuries in his first year in Buffalo. Despite playing in 13 games, it made a noticeable impact on his effectiveness in the game, as he didn't generate pressure nearly enough from the left side to his or the Bills liking. As an all-around defensive player, I thought his backup, Shaq Lawson, outplayed Murphy reasonably consistently. However, with a full offseason of full health, Murphy must come back as a different player in 2019. With both Hughes and Lawson due to become a free agent following the season, the Bills are at a crossroads at defensive end. If Murphy doesn't prove his worth, they can release him ahead of the 2020 season and save $7.2 million in cap room. At the very least, Murphy has to provide pressure more often than he did in 2018 to help Hughes and be an above average starter for the Bills in all areas. If Murphy can do that, there's a good chance he gets to the final year of his contract. If he doesn't or has another injury-plagued season, 2019 could be his last with the Bills.

Defensive Tackle (6)
Star Lotulelei, Ed Oliver, Harrison Phillips, Jordan Phillips, Kyle Peko, Robert Thomas

Biggest Strength: Potential interior pressure
- With Ed Oliver on the team, one of the most significant weaknesses of the past two seasons could wind up being a strength as early as 2019, and well into the future. Though Kyle Williams was a central figure of the defense for years and played solid football until the end of his career, his production as an interior rusher dipped over the last two seasons. It led to more focus on stopping Hughes as an edge rusher out wide, and fewer organic stops right up the middle of the defense. With the type of ability that he showed, this is a potential strength of Oliver, and one that can help take the defense to a level we haven't seen since head coach Sean McDermott took over the organization. Paired with likely backup Jordan Phillips, the duo specializes in fighting through the interior line to make an impact im the backfield -- whether it's in run or pass situations. Having Oliver's presence will help Star Lotulelei do his job as a one-technique more effectively to occupy blockers, and perhaps the same goes for Harrison Phillips -- the second-year player that had a strong first half of the season but seemed to hit a bit of the dreaded rookie wall down the stretch of the year. If Oliver can start pushing blockers into the pocket, or getting back there by himself, that means the defensive line benefits in more opportunities for negative plays.

Biggest Question: How long will it take for Ed Oliver to make an impact?
- Considering he's undersized and will have to get used to the NFL strength and power that opposing offensive linemen possess, there will be a bit of a learning curve for the rookie. I don't think it's fair to expect an immediate impact that puts him at an All-Pro level, which is what I consider to be his ceiling in this defensive scheme. Rather, I think a fair expectation would be what happened throughout the 2018 season with Tremaine Edmunds -- the team's middle linebacker and first-round selection. We saw flashes from Edmunds mixed in while he was still getting a feel for the NFL game. As he became more comfortable in the defense, the consistency came along with it, and he began making impact plays as they thought he could be able to. It might not take quite as long for Oliver because more was put on Edmunds' plate as a middle linebacker than it will for the defensive tackle, but there will likely be a learning curve all the same. If there isn't then that speaks to how good of a player he is, and how high his ceiling really is.

Linebacker (10)
Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, Lorenzo Alexander, Deon Lacey, Julian Stanford, Vosean Joseph, Corey Thompson, Maurice Alexander, Tyrel Dodson, Juwan Foggie

Biggest Strength: Two young, ascending linebackers
- As speedy linebackers that can control the game are beginning to make a comeback around the NFL, the Bills are in an excellent position for the future of the game with the pairing of middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and weakside linebacker Matt Milano. Edmunds will be going into his second season, just turned 21 years old, comes across as wise beyond his years and is coming off a second half of the season where he was one of the best performers of the roster. With Milano, the Bills have a speedy converted linebacker that shows incredible instincts and timing to get to the ball carrier, while showing good range in coverage as well. Milano will be coming off a gruesome injury, but the Bills didn't believe it would cost Milano any time in the regular season of 2019 -- at least not when they last discussed it in January. With the league trending to two-linebacker sets as the norm, having the Edmunds-Milano duo for potentially years to come is one of the biggest strengths of the roster for the long-term -- and it also seems like both players can become a better version of themselves as they get more experienced. The future is bright at linebacker, especially if fifth-round pick Vosean Joseph can factor in at strongside linebacker when the Bills go to the stereotypical base defense.

Biggest Question: Can Tremaine Edmunds take a massive leap forward?
- Because of his size and length, it's easy to think that the things Edmunds was able to do in the second half season are just part of the position. However, when you keep watching his plays back from November and December, you see a player that's trusting his instincts and reacting rather than overthinking and one that is using his rare blend of physical tools to his advantage. In terms of size, Edmunds is quite possibly the biggest middle linebacker I've heard of in NFL circles. Though, his movement ability bridges the gap of what players his size are usually able to do. As Edmunds gets more comfortable in the middle of the defense, he'll continue to be a playmaker in pass coverage and a nuisance to get the ball over the top in the deep middle against the Bills' zone. He must improve on shedding blockers to release his full potential, but even if he doesn't, the Bills have a potentially good-to-great young middle linebacker on their hands, and one that will likely be with the organization for a long time to come.

Cornerback (9)
Tre'Davious White, Taron Johnson, Levi Wallace, EJ Gaines, Kevin Johnson, Ryan Lewis, Lafayette Pitts, Denzel Rice, Cam Lewis

Biggest Strength: Tre'Davious White
- After going over all of the film throughout the season, I can come to only one conclusion. Those that were critical of the play of Tre'Davious White from the 2018 season weren't watching closely enough. The Bills routinely gave White the responsibility to shadow the opposition's top receiver, and outside of a handful of beats, did a masterful job of it. With the cornerback position, everyone gets beat from time to time. The game and the rules favor the passing game, and cornerbacks often suffer because of it. However, White is at his best when not featured on the game broadcast. In man coverage, White has the fluidity and the raw speed to keep up with just about anyone. In zone coverage, he keeps his head on a swivel and positions himself quite well to discourage teams from throwing at him. And that's if the quarterback even looks his way at all due to his reputation. There were a couple of plays White will want back, especially late in the year, but he was one of the best players on the entire roster for the full season and is still under the Bills' control for the next three years.

Biggest Question: Can Levi Wallace become the true CB2?
- The Bills were pleasantly surprised when the undrafted Levi Wallace took over as the starting cornerback and turned in positive results week after week. And interlaced in his play were clear opportunities where you could see his potential for growth into a solid starter for the Bills. Wallace's main weakness was his lack of strength, which I'm sure he's been battling since his days at high school. His frame is that of a tall, long and lean player that takes quite a bit to add muscle mass -- especially when battling the metabolism of a 23-year-old ectomorph. However, should he get stronger -- which has likely been his primary focus through the offseason -- the rest of his game indicates someone that should be in the starting lineup. Wallace will have to go through and win the job against some legitimate competition in Kevin Johnson and EJ Gaines but considering his low-key mentality and how well he fits into the defense, it's hard to envision him doing anything less than taking the starting competition down to the wire. With how well Wallace played last season, mainly when targeted by opposing teams, he proved that he can play. Now it's just a matter of putting it together through the spring and summer to come away with the starting job for good.

Safety (6)
Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Rafael Bush, Siran Neal, Jaquan Johnson, Dean Marlowe

Biggest Strength: How well Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde work with one another
- For how well the duo of Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde played together in 2017, it was a reasonably safe bet that there would be a bit of a regression in how effective they were in 2018. While there was a minor decline, it wasn't nearly as pronounced as I was expecting. The pair makes for one of the better safety duos in the league and are as interchangeable in Sean McDermott's defense as you'll find around the NFL. In 2017, Poyer and Hyde combined for ten interceptions -- five apiece. In 2018, while the tally wasn't as good, they still accounted for six interceptions, along with plenty of key pass breakups along the way. The pair are both in the prime of their NFL careers and remain under contract through 2020 at least. When McDermott was operating as the de facto general manager in the 2017 offseason, he hit a home run with these two safeties that have meant so much to the defense over the last two seasons.

Biggest Question: Will the Bills go with youth as their primary backups?
- In the 2018 NFL Draft, the Buffalo Bills selected Siran Neal to be their project safety that his college, Jacksonville State, used all over the field on defense. The Bills were hoping, that through the year, Neal would be able to get to a place where he could start taking some reps as the 'big nickel' -- a position used against teams that line up a bigger wide receiver in the slot. Instead, Neal didn't take to the defense as quickly as they would have liked, found his way on the field primarily for special teams, and the 'big nickel' duties went to veteran Rafael Bush. Still, the Bills remain optimistic about Neal heading into his second season. In 2019, the Bills drafted Jaquan Johnson in the sixth round to give them another young safety to develop, and it looks like his style of play could be as a bit of an understudy to Poyer and Hyde. It gives the young and enthusiastic safeties coach, Bobby Babich, two young players to try to mold through the spring and summer -- considering he doesn't have to worry as much about Poyer and Hyde handling their responsibilities. The question is, would the Bills actually keep five safeties on the roster in 2019? The team has much more talent across the board than it did a year ago, and even then, the Bills still only kept four safeties on the 53-man roster when they had to make their final cuts. Bush is in the final year of his contract, and it would cost the Bills minimally on this year's cap ($300,000) to release him in favor of the younger Neal and Johnson. However, both players have to show that the Bills can trust them in the event of an injury to one of the two starters, and additionally, one of Neal or Johnson must show that they can capably replace Bush as the 'big nickel' when the game plan calls for it. It will surely be a fascinating summer for the backend of the safety group, and how quickly, or if at all, Babich can get the young duo to come along.

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia