Star Lotulelei 'happy to be back' with Buffalo Bills after 2020 opt-out

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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Retiring from the NFL hardly crossed Star Lotulelei's mind over the past year.

The Buffalo Bills defensive tackle, who opted out of the 2020 NFL season, enjoyed spending time with his wife and four children. But the more he watched his teammates from afar, the firmer his stance became he wasn't done playing football. His wife, Fuiva, helped remove any doubt as well.

"I enjoyed it, but my wife wasn't so into the whole idea as much as I was," Lotulelei said. "She was getting sick of me. That's when I found out that maybe my wife isn't ready for me to call it, yet. I was ready to come back as soon as I saw that."

The 2013 first-round draft pick of the Carolina Panthers returned to Orchard Park this week for the first time since the end of the 2019 season. The Bills' mandatory minicamp might have been his first football action in an official capacity, but Lotulelei spent the majority of his time away training for his return.

Lotulelei referred to his opt-out as the "best decision for myself and my wife and kids" considering the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19. He admitted he had a tough time watching games last season because of how much he missed being around the team, although he communicated via text message with Bills teammates Jordan Poyer, Micah Hyde and Jerry Hughes.

"I didn't watch every game, just because it was a little tough," Lotulelei said. "Especially that last game. I was happy because the team was doing so well. The success that they had last year was great. It was a bummer not to be a part of it, but again, I made the decision, I don't regret it. ... I was hoping they would have got it done, but it is what it is, so I'm back now and we'll see what happens this year."

Buffalo is banking on Lotulelei's return to elevate its defense to its form from the 2018 and 2019 seasons, times when the Bills allowed the second and third fewest yards per game in the NFL, respectively. The Bills' defense took a step back in 2020, finishing 14th in yards allowed per game (352.5) and 16th in scoring with 375 total points after finishing the 2019 season as the league's second best scoring defense.

Bills coach Sean McDermott tempered expectations when asked how the team's de facto 1-technique could help improve its defense this coming season.

"Look, you play and you go with who you got," McDermott said. "And I'm extremely proud of what we were able to do last year on that side of the ball up front. Can Star help us? Yes, he can. But that again remains to be seen by how much time he's missed. There's a lot that has to be played out between now and the time we tee it up against Pittsburgh. And so we all have a tremendous amount of work to do. And in this case, Star does as well."

McDermott reminded how Lotulelei gave Buffalo a point of attack up front on early downs last time the defensive tackle was on the field, and he brings leadership to the Bills' locker room.

One player who will benefit from Lotulelei's return is 2019 first-round pick Ed Oliver, who had less success against double teams last season (7.8% pass rush win rate versus double teams) than he did as a rookie in 2019 (10.1%). Lotulelei would ideally attract some of the attention opposing offensive lines gave Oliver last season.

And if there's any question as to whether Oliver was happy to see his defensive line mate back, he greeted Lotulelei with a noteworthy hug when they first saw each other inside the facility.

"He was dealing with a lot more double teams than he did his rookie year, but I feel like he played well," Lotulelei said of Oliver. "He always plays hard, that's one thing you know that you're gonna get from Ed, he goes 100% every time he's on the field. ... Ed's gonna have another good year, so it was just good to be back."

Lotulelei did not participate in team drills during Tuesday's minicamp practice because McDermott said the defensive tackle has "some catching up to do." Lotulelei said he is roughly 5 to 10 pounds lighter than his normal playing weight of 310 pounds, but added he generally starts off lighter because he gains weight over the course of a season.

Despite the limited on-field time, Lotulelei still made an impression on quarterback Josh Allen, who called him "one of the favorites on the team."

"He doesn't say two words throughout the entire year, but he's a guy that you love being around," Allen said. "He's got good vibes. ... Obviously, last year he opted out, but it was good for his body. I think he's completely healed up. Playing that position, you get banged up throughout the year, so he's going to be really fresh for us.

"I'm excited that he's back ... because the things that he can do on the field are just special. But above that, in the locker room, he's a guy that everybody kind of gravitates toward, even though he doesn't say much."