OPINION: One big question: Defense

One question for each position on the Bills defense
75756A5E-120A-4932-810C-2FD980DB785E
2021 Bills training camp sponsors

Training camp officially opens for the Buffalo Bills on Wednesday in Orchard Park. The veterans who have not reported to One Bills Drive will do so on Tuesday, while the rookies have already been at the team facilities since last week.

Here's the roster for each defensive position group, as well as the specialists, and one big question that needs to be answered before the start of the regular season:

Star Lotulelei
Star Lotulelei Photo credit Rich Barnes - USA TODAY Sports

Defensive tackle:

- Ed Oliver
- Star Lotulelei
- Harrison Phillips
- Vernon Butler
- Justin Zimmer
- Brandin Bryant
- Treyvon Hester
- Eli Ankou

QUESTION: How will Star Lotulelei’s return impact the unit?

Lotulelei, who opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns, is back for 2021. His presence as a run defender was sorely missed last season.

If he proves he can step right back in and be a huge boost in that area, it will give the team more options along the interior defensive line. It will especially help Ed Oliver, who can then be more of the penetrator the Bills drafted him to be.

If Lotulelei struggles to get back to the level of run defender and space eater he was prior to last season, it will not only impact Oliver’s ability to penetrate and put more of an onus on him as a run defender, but also mean they’ll need Butler, Phillips, and Zimmer to step up even more and force the team to make even tougher decisions on who makes the final roster and how to use their personnel.

A.J. Epenesa and Mario Addison
A.J. Epenesa and Mario Addison Photo credit Rich Barnes - USA TODAY Sports

Defensive end:

- Jerry Hughes
- Mario Addison
- A.J. Epenesa
- Darryl Johnson
- Efe Obada
- Mike Love
- Greg Rousseau
- Carlos Basham, Jr.
- Bryan Cox, Jr. (Injured Reserve)

QUESTION: Who’s left out?

The Bills typically keep four or five defensive ends on the final active roster, and that includes anyone who makes it more for special teams contributions, like Darryl Johnson last season.  Looking at this roster, and knowing how much the team invested the offseason into this group, there is going to be some serious competition, and tough choices.

Rousseau and Basham are locks to make the team as their top-two picks this past draft. It would be really hard seeing them give up on Epenesa one year after making him their top draft pick.

Obada had 5.5 sacks last season in a limited role with the Carolina Panthers and offers a ton of versatility the Bills love. Hughes has a huge cap hit, but is still the team’s best overall end until proven otherwise. Addison would cost over $6 million in dead cap money this season and another $2 million next season if they move on from him. Johnson is a solid special teams performer. Love has shown he can play and contribute.

This is going to be a fun group to watch, and intriguing to see how it all plays out.

Tremaine Edmunds
Tremaine Edmunds Photo credit Rich Barnes - USA TODAY Sports

Linebacker:

- Tremaine Edmunds
- Matt Milano
- A.J. Klein
- Tyrel Dodson
- Tyler Matakevich
- Andre Smith
- Tyrell Adams
- Marquel Lee
- Mike Bell
- Joe Giles-Harris

QUESTION: How many linebackers make the final roster?

Looking back at last year, albeit sometimes due to injuries, the Bills had anywhere between five and eight linebackers on the active roster on any given game week. They usually dressed five or six of them, so that leaves a wide range of outcomes here.

Edmunds and Milano are the entrenched starters. The Bills play so much nickel defense, the third backer is rarely on the field other than as a backup to one of them.

Matakevich is a core special teams player, and even signed a contract extension so they could spread money out. He’s almost certainly making the 53-man roster.

After a slow start, Klein was terrific in his fill-in role in several games last year. Adams was a tackling machine for the Houston Texans a year ago, finishing 12th in the entire NFL with 122 total tackles. Dodson can play all three linebacker spots and knows the system well.

None of Smith, Lee, Bell, or Giles-Harris should be counted out for spots, either. All bring a mix of versatility and special teams ability.

Levi Wallace
Levi Wallace Photo credit Timothy T. Ludwig - USA TODAY Sports

Cornerback:

- Tre’Davious White
- Taron Johnson
- Siran Neal
- Levi Wallace
- Dane Jackson
- Cam Lewis
- Rachad Wildgoose
- Olaijah Griffin
- Nick McCloud

QUESTION: Can Dane Jackson win the starting job from Levi Wallace?

Jackson became the darling of the Bills’ fanbase with the way he performed in his limited action from the very first game he saw the field against the New York Jets in Week 7 last year. In that win for the Bills, he collected an interception and broke up two passes.

The 2020 seventh round pick saw significant time on defense in two more games later in the season. The first was in Week 10 against the Arizona Cardinals, when he racked up eight total tackles, a pass breakup, and a fumble recovery. Then in the Week 17 finale against the Miami Dolphins, the rookie made a big tackle for a loss near the Dolphins' goal line and had two more pass breakups.

Wallace has been the object of a lot of criticism over the last couple of years for giving up too many plays, but when you play opposite Tre’Davious White, you’re going to be targeted a lot and that can happen. He’s certainly had his inconsistencies, but he’s also made some plays, as well.

He’s given the team very good value over his first three years since being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2018, and has fought off every bit of competition that’s come his way for the job, starting all 35 games he’s appeared in. That means he’s never been a backup since earning an active roster spot.

Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde
Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde Photo credit Jamie Germano - Rochester Democrat and Chronicle via USA TODAY Sports

Safety:

- Micah Hyde
- Jordan Poyer
- Jaquan Johnson
- Josh Thomas
- Damar Hamlin
- Tariq Thompson

QUESTION: Who wins the important No. 3 role, backing up Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer?

Dean Marlowe has been the primary backup to both Hyde and Poyer the over last couple years. However, he signed as a free agent with the Detroit Lions this past offseason. With Marlowe gone, the job is wide open.

Johnson has been in Buffalo for two years, but he’s mainly been only a special teams player up to this point. The coaching staff likes him a lot, but he’s yet to play a defensive snap in the NFL, appearing in two games on special teams last season.

Thomas spent the season on the team’s practice squad. He was elevated for two regular season games, seeing limited special teams action in both.

Hamlin, a sixth round pick this year, has just as good of a shot as anyone to grab the spot. He’s a terrific special teams player himself, increasing his chances to make the team and see the field.

Tyler Bass
Tyler Bass Photo credit Rich Barnes - USA TODAY Sports

Specialists:

- K - Tyler Bass
- P - Matt Haack
- LS - Reid Ferguson

Question: Will another leg join the training camp roster?

The Bills currently have three open active roster spots. In each of the last three years, the team has had two punters and to kickers on the opening training camp roster. They currently only have one of each. So there’s room and reason to think they could add another leg.

If they do, it wouldn’t really be for competition this camp, but would give Bass and Haack’s legs a rest once in a while, and also give the team a chance to look at another player at each spot in case an injury occurred during the season and they had to rush to sign someone.

Sponsored by:
Jim's Steakout:
Outlet Liquor:
Fiegel, Carr and Joyce:

Follow me on Twitter: @SalSports

We strive to be a platform where varying opinions may be voiced and heard. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed by the author(s) of this article and/or by those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not represent those of Audacy, Inc. We are not responsible for any damages or losses arising from this article and/or any comment(s).