ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – The Buffalo Bills are bigger. And badder. And, quite likely, better, than they were in 2020.
Ultimately, they just might be Super Bowl bound.
No one should be surprised if they are, at this point, given their rapid rise from the AFC’s abyss under current management; the coupling of head coach Sean McDermott and his staff along with general manager Brandon Beane and his staff has proven to be transformational and some of their best work has come in recent months. Yes, hope springs eternal throughout this league or parity in late July, but it seems particularly well-founded here, with a roster as deep as any in the NFL, and, in particular, the makings of a much more formidable, ferocious and fearsome front seven that should lead the defense back to the heights it attained in 2019 – if not beyond – while this Josh Allen-led offense has already ascended to among the most potent attacks in the league.
We are months away from knowing about the “better” part of the above equation – given that the Bills came a few plays away from a Super Bowl appearance a year ago – but one need only spend a few hours watching the overhauled Bills defensive front operate in practice for the “bigger and badder” part to become readily apparent. This group now includes returning defensive tackle Star Lotulelei (311-ish pounds), back after electing to opt out of 2020 due to COVID-19, and top picks Greg Rousseau (6-foot-6 with long levers) and Boogie Basham (uber-athletic at 6-foot-3) are already menacing in the early days of camp, portending big things for a unit that lacking pocket-moving might in some critical junctures a year ago.
“You look back a year ago and we were one of the smallest defensive lines in the NFL, maybe the smallest,” esteemed defense coordinator Leslie Frazier said Friday. “I think it makes a big difference.”
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Indeed. Beane and Co. made fortifying this front a top priority in free agency and the draft, retaining key off-ball linebacker Matt Milano when many thought they wouldn’t have the cap/cash to do so, and making pass rush a draft hallmark. Rousseau’s size and potential standout in these sessions, though he is a little raw, and Basham has some polish and verve to him, seemingly intent on making a sterling first impression. (Keep an eye on more impact from lineman A.J. Epenesa as well, as the second-round pick found a solid playing weight in the second half last season and started garnering praise around here).
“It doesn’t seem too big for them out there, and we’re really pleased with where they are,” Frazier said, while couching his assessment in that the Bills had yet to put on full pads for a closer approximation of actual NFL regular season football.
Basham has been the talk of camp, with him diagnosing a play Wednesday, anticipating how Allen would turn in the pocket, getting his large mitts on the ball, tapping it up in the air, catching it, and then taking it to the house. He is a sponge, immersing himself in this defense, and this display was an adroit combination of preparation, instincts, inspiration and physical acuity.
“For him to bat that ball the way he did and have the wherewithal to be able to catch it … that’s really great to see,” Frazier said.
Getting Lotulelei back is a massive gain, literally, a true old-school nose tackle who can eat a few gaps and allow everyone else to run more freely. Youngsters Ed Oliver, 23, entering his second season and Tremaine Edmunds, 23, entering his fourth (!) season could benefit most directly from having him next them (Oliver) or directly in front of him (Edmunds). Oliver in particular no longer has to try to morph into a nose tackle, which he slowly got more comfortable with a year ago but was far from ideal for him and the team (part of that undersized conundrum).
“I was alright there, but I’m glad Star is back,” Oliver said with a big smile.
The hope is that we see a few more electric flashes from this young duo; forcing a turnover or denying someone behind the line of scrimmage at a critical juncture. The kind of game-changing jolts that help bury opponents and clinch a victory. “We need those splash plays,” as Frazier put it.
Edmunds, I fully believe, is going to have a huge breakout campaign. He is too strong and smart, with a ridiculous wingspan and athleticism, not to see that show up more in the box score. It’s coming, everyone around here senses, a critical early season sack or interception the likely springboard to a Pro Bowl season.
“He fully realizes we all believe in him,” Frazier said. “We trust him. He is the coordinator of the defense on the field.”
At times in the past Edmunds could tend to be too hard on himself. His desire to be great is real. His work ethic is elite. The system and his responsibilities remain unchanged. And his time, quite likely, is coming.
“I’m still a young guy, I’m still just 23, man,” Edmunds told me. “So the sky is the limit as far as how strong I can get, and in the mental aspect of the game I’m still learning. I haven’t reached my full potential yet. I’m still getting stronger. That’s my main focus everyday – continue to improve my numbers in the weight room, improve my mental side out here on the field and in the classroom and just continue to take it day by day.”
The Bills are the rare team that was on the cusp of glory yet suffered no significant attrition. If anything, the roster is far deeper at many critical positions than ever before (corner, linebacker, receiver, quarterback), and this team is driven by its AFC Championship loss at Kansas City, to boot. The schedule can’t possibly be as difficult as the one last year’s 13-3 outfit overcame. There’s good reason to be bullish on Buffalo, into January and beyond.
“Brandon Beane knows what he’s doing,” Oliver said.
Yes, he does.
Bills camp notesEverything is honky dory with Allen and talks about a new contract are ongoing. He’s earned it; he knows it and the Bills brass knows it. He isn’t going anywhere, based on everything I have heard. I also wouldn’t say anything is imminent, though there is a hope something could get done this preseason. The lower cap, and some market uncertainty (will there be a curveball coming from Lamar Jackson’s unique negotiations with the Ravens?) make things a little murky. It’s worth pointing out, however, that when Beane was in Carolina they did a mega deal with Cam Newton after his fourth year, not his third, and it worked great for all parties. This will eventually get done.For all of their roster additions, and retentions, nothing was bigger than Frazier and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll returning. McDermott has built a stellar staff, continuity has reigned and this team has three head coaches, in reality, with Frazier formerly holding the title in Minnesota (he should be a HC right now somewhere else) and Daboll more than ready for the job. I can’t imagine both being back in a year, or either, frankly. Color Edmunds surprised to still be working with his coordinator:”Coach Frazier is a real one,” Edmunds said. “I could see that from Day One. He’s a great coach and very educated in what he does. He’s exactly the kind of guy that you would want coaching you. I have tons of respect for him. Anything he tells me, I’m all ears. This is a guy that played the game, a guy who has been in my shoes, a guy who won championships. All of us are striving to be essentially like him, and reach some of those goals that he reached. He’s a guy I have a ton of respect for.”If the Bills can get teams into more third-and-long situations – and Lotulelei should help there on early downs – then this defense will really take off. Buffalo’s opponents faced third-and-long just 86 times last season; only six other defenses put opposing offenses in that scenario fewer times.Count me among those who believe this is the perfect spot for Mitchell Trubisky. I’ve been pretty clear about him in the past – and his legion of Stans in the media and the hype in Chicago did him no favors – but he can’t do better than this. Being around Allen and being in Daboll’s offense with this group will bring out the best in him. All of the buzz about the former top pick here is positive and if this team had to go 4-6 weeks without its MVP candidate QB, Trubisky could hold down the fort for the most part, in this system, with these coaches, I believe.