Bills' defensive line could feature new faces after pivotal offseason

Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips led the Bills with 9.5 sacks this season. Rich Barnes/USA Today Sports

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The Buffalo Bills defense stresses the importance of "rush plus coverage," meaning the secondary must work in synergy with the front seven.

It's a concept that returning players might have to stress to a few new faces in 2020.

While Buffalo's secondary should remain largely in place this coming season, there are question marks surrounding the front seven -- specifically on the defensive line. The unit shined during Buffalo's playoff surge, but the team's sack leaders -- defensive tackle Jordan Phillips and defensive end Shaq Lawson -- can become unrestricted free agents.

Phillips and Lawson have expressed their desire to stay in Buffalo, but it seems unlikely both will return.

In Phillips' case, his 9.5 sacks in 2019 represent a career-high -- and should attract attention in free agency. Bills general manager Brandon Beane said Phillips "earned the right to see what his value is on the market," and a recent Phillips tweet seems to indicate he thinks that value should reflect his status as a "top 3 DT."

This season, the three highest-paid defensive tackles -- Aaron Donald (Los Angeles Rams), Fletcher Cox (Philadelphia Eagles) and Grady Jarrett (Atlanta Falcons) -- had contracts averaging at least $17 million per year. The Bills are unlikely to pay anywhere close to that figure, primarily because they invested a 2019 first-round pick on promising rookie Ed Oliver. With $10.1 million due to Star Lotulelei in 2020 and Harrison Phillips returning from a torn ACL, Buffalo does have options at the position.

It's a different story with Lawson, whose fifth-year option was declined prior to the 2019 season. Lawson also responded to a contract year with an excellent season, recording a career-high 6.5 sacks. Besides Lawson, the Bills have Jerry Hughes ($9.5 million due in 2020), Trent Murphy ($8.9 million) and rookie seventh-round pick Darryl Johnson Jr.

"Shaq took it in stride, and we challenged him and told him, 'listen Shaq, us not picking up your option has nothing to do with us wanting you here, it's just where we are at this time,'" Beane said. "We [told him we] would love for you to have a great year and sign you to a long-term [contract], so I was very happy with Shaq, and we'll obviously talk to his representatives."

The Bills almost certainly can't let Lawson walk without adding another defensive end; they might need to do so even if they re-sign Lawson.

No matter what happens with their own players, Beane hinted that the defensive line is a unit Buffalo plans to address this offseason.

"We do want to continue to get young," he said. "We added some young guys last year in Ed Oliver. Harrison Phillips will come back, a young player. I know everyone probably forgets about him because he got injured early in the year. Darryl Johnson, I thought did some really good things. He didn't get as many reps being the fourth guy, but showed some promise.

"We believe in being strong up front, so we'll definitely have to look at it."

The Bills have nine picks in the 2020 draft (including the first-round pick at No. 22 overall) and could also address the defensive line by snagging a player from what's expected to be a strong free-agent class of edge rushers. However, Beane has made clear that paying for top-tier free agents is not his preference.

"If we're going to change up guys, other than people who leave in free agency that we can't control, we do believe in continuity and we want to keep as many of this core [as we can]," he said. "These guys that we've drafted and spent time developing and learning our system, we do want to keep them.

"Hopefully we'll just be able to add some pieces here and there to help us take the next step."