Rare is the case in the NFL when an entire position group is afforded the luxury of having so many outgoing veterans playing along so many ascending players who represent the future of the franchise.
But the Buffalo Bills have set their defensive line up this way for 2021 with the idea that they're going to get great production one way or another by keeping 11 players for their four-man front.
On the outside, if rookies Greg Rousseau and Boogie Basham and second-year man A.J. Epenesa are not ready for prime time, for example, they know players like Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison will be.
On the interior, where Ed Oliver, Harrison Phillips and Justin Zimmer face critical seasons in their development, the Bills also have Star Lotulelei and Vernon Butler, who will be entering their eighth and sixth seasons, respectively.
Hughes, Addison and Butler are on the final years of their contracts. Lotulelei, signed through 2023, has no guaranteed money beyond this season.
So 2021 will be a year in which the Bills hope to complete the passing of the baton, giving general manager Brandon Beane and the coaching staff enough confidence to start getting younger across the board next season.
Based on what has transpired in training camp and the preseason, it looks like the plan is starting to fall in place perfectly. Rouseau, Basham and Epenesa, who played underweight as a rookie, have been spectacular at times. Phillips early in the preseason looked like he was close to or at 100% for the first time since 2019 surgery to repair a torn ACL before suffering a setback.
Epenesa and Oliver clearly are the biggest keys to this plan. If they take the leaps forward the team is expecting, it will be a huge success. If they don't, the Bills will have to adjust and start thinking about a different composition at that group for the long term.
Coach Sean McDermott has been especially pleased with the progress of Oliver, who has had an uneven first two seasons after the Bills used the ninth overall pick of the 2019 NFL Draft to bring him in.
"I think in a lot of ways, it’s been both on and off the field,” McDermott said. "You just see a young man that's ... watching him now, he’s out here early, going through his pre-practice routine. I can tell you that wasn’t always the case. He’s connecting himself to the situations that come up through the course of the game, which is a challenge for young players coming from college to the NFL. So, I think he’s improving in a lot of different areas.
"... I think the biggest thing is when you play that position, there’s a lot of unselfish traits that go with that position. You’re not always on the stat sheet, you’re not always noticed on television, on the news or on [ESPN's] SportsCenter, but it’s what happens between the hedges, if you will, that really factors into a game."
The Bills believe Oliver is ready to put all of that together in Year 3.
If not, they still like their chances of getting great production from that position in 2021.