Not having Star Lotulelei, who opted out because of COVID-19 last year, impacted the Bills across the defensive line in 2020, coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane believe.
Having him back at age 31 won't fix all their problems, however.
In our latest installment of a series examining the strength of each Bills' position group heading toward next week's NFL Draft, we take a look at their collection of defensive linemen, reasonable expectations in store for them and what the Bills might do in the draft to help the process along of becoming more formidable against the run and putting more pressure on the quarterback.
Their defensive tackles, led by Ed Oliver, Harrison Phillips, Quintin Jefferson and Vernon Butler, struggled to find their way at first but eventually adjusted to life without Lotulelei.
A first-round pick in 2019, Oliver is a player the Bills still believe will play at a championship level. With Lotulelei back and Phillips presumably all the way recovered from a ruptured ACL in 2019, that could happen.
Jefferson was let go and landed with the Las Vegas Raiders, but Butler remains, despite having no sacks in his first season with the Bills after producing 6.0 the year before with Carolina.
Veteran defensive ends returning for at least one more season include Jerry Hughes, who will turn 33 in August, and Mario Addison, who will turn 34 in September. The hope is that they can help the younger, ascending players like AJ Epenesa and Darryl Johnson stay on track along with Bryan Cox Jr. and newcomer Efe Obada, who last year delivered 5.5 sacks while playing just 39% of the defensive snaps for Carolina.
A Nigerian native and late bloomer, Obada, 29, is an interesting study. He grew up in England, homeless for a time and spending time in more than 10 foster homes. He did not play college football and came to the Panthers through the International Player Pathway after bouncing around on practice squads of three other teams.
Obada lingered as a free agent for the longest time this offseason before finally signing with the Bills last week, turning down an offer to be reunited with Ron Rivera in Washington.
The Bills are hoping Epenesa and Obada have breakouts in 2021 but likely aren't counting on it. They'll be on the lookout for pass-rush help starting in the first round.
Although this year's crop is widely considered to be devoid of pass-rush talent, there are some potential unpolished who could be available as low as No. 30 overall, when they make their first pick.
SI.com's own Nick Lamatinna has them picking Penn State's freakish defensive end Jason Oweh in the first round.
"By the looks of how Brandon Beane has been talking about this pick to the media, this will be a “best player available” scenario for Buffalo," Lamatinna writes. "Jayson Oweh would certainly fit that description here at pick 30. Defensive end is also a huge need for the Bills to upgrade, as they are a team who has struggled to get to the quarterback. The Bills will bet on the tremendous upside with Oweh and attempt to tap into his potential as a dynamic edge rusher."
In the second round, Lamatinna has the Bills taking North Carolina State's Alim McNeill.
Again, nobody should be surprised if that's exactly how things unfold.
The Bills know that most games are decided in the trenches. In free agency, they solidified an already strong offensive line by making sure their starters with expiring contracts signed new ones and adding three newcomers with starting experience.
The defensive line could be next, starting next Thursday evening and perhaps continuing into Friday and Saturday.