Bills Minicamp: Why They Expect Better Defense in 2021

Ed Oliver and A.J. Epenesa are poised for breakout seasons after return of Star Lotulelei.
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Overlooked at times in the euphoria of the Buffalo Bills winning 15 times en route to the AFC Championship Game last season were the struggles they experienced on defense.

The unit simply was not as formidable as it was during the first three years under coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. And although the group played much better as the season wore on, its failure to pressure Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes enough in the conference championship game was a major factor in the Chiefs being able to prevail and advance to the Super Bowl.

But that was then and this is ... now.

Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei has returned after a one-year hiatus that came when he opted out of 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns.

The play of fellow defensive tackle Ed Oliver, which dropped from his rookie season the year before — likely because of Lotulelei's absence, is expected to improve.

Same for second-year defensive end A.J. Epenesa, who struggled with his weight throughout his rookie season.

The Bills also added defensive ends Gregory Rousseau and Carlos "Boogie" Basham in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft.

Second-year cornerback Dane Jackson seems better prepared to challenge for a starting spot after spending most of last season on the practice squad.

Wednesday, following practice at mandatory minicamp, linebacker Matt Milano couldn't contain his excitement about the state of the team.

"We're ahead of the game, we're rolling, especially on defense" he said. "The back seven, I think, has been together for four-plus years now, if not more than that.

"So it's been pretty cool to experience that and not having to worry so much about the playbook and little stuff like that. It's more about ... making plays and taking it to the next level."

Not everything is quite in sync. McDermott on Tuesday cautioned how Lotulei has some "catching-up to do" and said the expectation for Oliver is to "affect the game. He's a top pick. He's here to affect the quarterback, affect the game."

But the excitement and talent levels can't even be quantified.

The level of continuity, from all the players returning from last year's juggernaut team to all the coordinators remaining in place, also is off the charts.

"There's a value in the cohesiveness of the group, no doubt," McDermott said. "Within that, though, you have to also be careful not to get too stale. You have to always embrace the growth mindset ... to continue to push the envelope.

"... There is that familiarity, and that also allows us to take further steps into those finer points and more granular pieces of of the game. It seems like we're always chasing it, even though we have been together for a few years now."

Unlike many teams who have modified their offseason programs this year, the Bills have embraced McDermott's philosophy of pushing as hard as possible even in June.

"It's great to have everyone here," McDermott said. "I certainly appreciate everyone's participation. This is how you build a team. It's hard to build a team when you're spread throughout the United States or ... different countries, if you will. And that's no way to build a team, a good team, and that's what we're trying to do. And so I appreciate everyone being here."

Nick Fierro is the publisher of Bills Central. Check out the latest Bills news at www.si.com/nfl/bills and follow Fierro on Twitter at @NickFierro.