Camp Countdown 2021 | 3 potential breakout players on defense

Ed Oliver (91) Buffalo Bills Organized Team Activity, June 7, 2021. Photo by Sara Schmidle
Ed Oliver (91) Buffalo Bills Organized Team Activity, June 7, 2021. Photo by Sara Schmidle

The Bills defense has been one of the top units in the NFL since Sean McDermott arrived in 2017. Due to many factors, the defense last season couldn't reach the high rate of productivity as in years past. This season, with a more regular offseason schedule and another year under the same defensive scheme, the Bills defense should get back to its old ways. 

Here are three Bills players that should play a big role and have a breakout year in 2021.

A.J. Epenesa

The COVID-19 pandemic made it very hard for the 2020 rookie class to get a full offseason's worth of training last year. Defensive end A.J. Epenesa started off slow but then started to make some waves as the season progressed. Throughout the season, he struggled to keep his weight up as he had to change schemes from college to the NFL.

This offseason, Epenesa has put the work in with the training staff to be closer to where he wants to be with his weight, and he can tell that he is making progress. During OTAs, he felt like he was stronger and faster than he was last season. Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier noticed that as well. 

"Now he's more stabilized, he has gotten stronger and he's more explosive," Frazier stated. "He's really benefited from staying here and working with our strength staff. That's something he couldn't do last offseason because of all the things that are going on. I'm anxious to see once we get to training camp if some of the things we're seeing now will transfer to what we're going to do with pads on. But man, he looks really good at this point."

Training camp and the preseason games will give everyone a look at where Epenesa is in his development. The Bills edge rusher feels that he knows the basics of the Bills defense after year one and is working to take the next step this season. For Epenesa, there is one goal in mind as his sophomore season begins. 

"I think for me personally, it's about starting at where I finished last season," Epenesa told Maddy Glab on the Bills Pod Squad. "Just continually going from there being more consistent against the run, setting the edge, more particularly my rushes, more wins and just being a presence is my goal. Just so people know where you're at because they have to worry about it. That's kind of my goal just being consistent and dominant."

Dane Jackson

The Bills 2020 seventh-round pick, Dane Jackson, wasn't on the field much in 2020, but when he was, he made a big impact. He played in five games and had 15 tackles, one interception, five passes defensed and one fumble recovery. Not only does Jackson have talent that has yet to be unleashed, but he has also been learning from some of the best veteran defensive backs in the whole league. Bills safety Jordan Poyer has been impressed with Jackson since day one. 

"First of all, when I first met Dane, I knew he was a dog," Poyer said. "That dude can play and he's only going to gain confidence the more he plays. I think the sky's the limit for that dude. … The dude likes to compete and likes to play. He was out there training with Aaron Donald. He motivated me this offseason with some of the training that he was doing. His confidence is just going to continue to grow as he continues to make plays."

Jackson will be a part of one of the biggest competitions during training camp as he will compete with Levi Wallace and others for the starting right cornerback competition. Jackson will really have to bring it this summer as Wallace has beaten out any competition that has been put up against him in back-to-back years.

The Bills defense is not that easy to learn, so Jackson's progress with the playbook will be a big factor to see if he is ready for the starting job. Leslie Frazier has seen Jackson grow from year one to year two and he has noticed Jackson come out of his shell more this offseason. 

"I can see how he's handling himself in the meetings, and the way he carries himself in practice," Frazier stated. "He's not that shy rookie that I saw in camp a year ago. That guy who didn't say two words. Now you get to know him a little bit. He's out there high-fiving and talking with his teammates laughing and joking. It's a good thing. He's comfortable with his teammates and that should allow him to go out and play free and enjoy the experience."

Ed Oliver

Even though some of Ed Oliver's stats went down from year one to year two, he was still very disruptive throughout last season. With Star Lotulelei opting out, Oliver was double-teamed most of the time. One of the things Oliver is best at is getting low and that helped him beat many blocks and upset the timing of many plays. Lotulelei watched Oliver from home last season and was impressed at what he saw out of him. 

"I thought he played well last year," Lotulelei said. "He was dealing with a lot more double teams than his rookie year, but I feel like he played well. He always plays hard, that's one thing you know that you're gonna get from Ed, he goes 100 percent every time he's on the field. So, I love watching Ed play, he's like a missile out there."

For Oliver, this is his first real offseason. He had a shortened one after he was drafted in 2019 and then last year it was mostly virtual. Having Lotulelei back and getting back to in-person work with second-year defensive line coach Eric Washington should set up Oliver for success. Sean McDermott is proud of the work and development that he has seen from Oliver this offseason, but he knows that there is a lot more hard work to be done for the third-year defensive lineman. 

"He's a top pick and he's here to affect the quarterback and affect the game," McDermott said. "This will be an opportunity for him to develop into a consistent performer for us. I really appreciate the way he's worked. I think his offseason to this point has been one that's going to put him in a position to do what I just mentioned. But again, the work remains and there's a lot of work to be done. There's an element of physical skill and there's also an element of the mental approach to the game. Those two have to come together for players to become elite at what they do. I know he's hard at work at combining those two to improve his game."

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