Buffalo Bills Training Camp: Defensive Ends Flashing

After one week, the competition at this position group has been everything the team hoped.
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There's no other way to put it. Last season wasn't a very good one for the Buffalo Bills' defense, starting with the perimeter pass rush.

Since then, they believe the players they've added and the improvement expected from everyone with the return to action of defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and return to full health of fellow defensive tackle Harrison Phillips will produce a different narrative in 2021.

So far, so good after one week of training camp.

Rookie draft picks Gregory Rousseau and Carlos "Boogie" Basham have each impressed teammates with their work habits and football IQ that only enhance their natural abilities.

Second-year defensive end A.J. Epenesa, who struggled unsuccessfully to get his weight right throughout last season, is seemingly straightened out now.

Buffalo Bills defensive end A.J. Epenesa during minicamp at the ADPRO Sports Training Center.

A.J. Epenesa of the Bills is widely expected to make a big leap in his second season.

Then there's veteran defensive end Mario Addison, who talked after their team's first padded practice of camp on Tuesday about why last season, his first with the Bills after coming over from Carolina, wasn't up to his usual standards after struggling with his mental health for a good while following the murder of his younger brother the year before.

"It was heavy on me," Addison said. "It was real heavy. It broke my mind up. Just being honest. My mind, it was on football, but it wasn't on football. I was letting it control me.

"You know how they say time heals wounds? It's not so much time. You'll never get over it, but you just have to learn to live with it, and that's what I'm doing now. I'm in a better mental state now."

Addison finished with just 5.0 sacks, his lowest total since 2013, when he played just 26% of the snaps while still feeling his way in his third year with the Panthers.

So in addition to a different Epenesa, the Bills are counting on a different Addison for both production and ability to mentor the younger players.

"Mario is back, he looks good, I think he's in a good mental space, speaking of the mental piece of the game," coach Sean McDermott said. "And when you're in a good spot, you know, he's in shape, ready to go, it makes it all that much easier to help others, right?

"So lead yourself first and lead others second is what he's done to this point in camp in just over a week here."

Epenesa played 27% of the defensive snaps as a rookie, finishing with 14 tackles and just 1.0 sack.

The Bills may not be banking on him having a breakout second season, but they sure believe it's coming.

"I thought it started, I thought he got off on the right foot when he came back here as early as he did in the offseason," McDermott said before Tuesday's practice, "and that was of his own doing. The work he's put in with [strength and conditioning coach] Eric Ciano, our [other] strength coaches, you're seeing the fruits of that labor.

"Today starts another chapter with pads and all that goes into that. So it will be interesting to see how he continues to grow. I mean, he's just in his second year, early part of his second year now, but I've been pleased to this point with his progress."

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. Email to Nicky300@aol.com.