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Which Buffalo Bills players are ready to emerge on defense in 2024?

A.J. Epenesa (57) poses for a photo during Buffalo Bills Veteran Media Day, June 10, 2024 at 1 Bills Drive.
A.J. Epenesa (57) poses for a photo during Buffalo Bills Veteran Media Day, June 10, 2024 at 1 Bills Drive.

Welcome to Part I of our Bills Training Camp preview.

This three-part series will dive into key names and storylines to know before the team heads to Rochester for camp on July 24. Today we are taking a look at defensive players who could be in line for a breakout season.

CB Christian Benford

A sixth-round pick in the 2022 draft, Benford was a surprise contributor his rookie season, earning a starting role out of camp. Multiple injuries derailed a promising Year 1 campaign but Benford came out stronger in his second season, solidifying himself as one of the top CBs on Buffalo's roster.

Benford started 14 games in 2023 where he racked up 54 tackles, 10 passes defended and 2 INTs. He allowed just two touchdown passes in coverage and PFF ranked Benford as the ninth-best corner from the '23 season.

While Benford's emergence has been seen up close by Bills fans, his rise is perhaps underrated when looked at through a national lens. Among PFF's top nine graded cornerbacks for 2023, Benford was just one of three players in that group to not have an All-Pro or Pro Bowl selection.

Buffalo's coaching staff and fellow cornerbacks have all spoken highly of Benford's mental approach and work ethic.

"That's my guy. I like the way he come to work every day," CB Rasul Douglas said of Benford. "He plays hard. He practices hard. And he talks to you and lets you know what he sees from his perspective and what you see. And you kind of just bounce ideas off each other."

The Bills perimeter DB group also returns midseason trade acquisition Rasul Douglas and a healthy Kaiir Elam who will all compete for opportunities in training camp. Benford enters the 2024 season with the most snaps in a Bills uniform among the perimeter defensive backs (slot CB Taron Johnson not included).

S Taylor Rapp

With two of Buffalo's cornerstone defensive players Micah Hyde (unsigned FA) and Jordan Poyer (Miami) departing in the offseason, it's time for the next generation of Bills safeties to make an impact.

Rapp signed with the Bills in free agency prior to last season on a one-year deal. While only making four starts with Poyer and Hyde as the team's main safety duo, Rapp saw the field in 16 regular season games as a rotational piece. He was particularly effective when the Bills deployed dime coverage, a package where Poyer, Hyde and Rapp all shared the field.

Rapp recorded 50 tackles on the year and had the game-winning interception in Week 18 against the Miami Dolphins to help the Bills secure the AFC East title.

His growth over the course of the season and his instinctual style of play made it easy for the Bills to want him back on a longer-term deal. Rapp signed a three-year contract to stay in Buffalo at the start of free agency.

"I thought he did a great job in his role last year and showed that he fit our DNA and could play in this defense," Bills GM Brandon Beane said during the NFL Owners meeting in late March.

Throughout the OTA and Minicamp periods, Rapp stood out to the coaching staff for his leadership in the secondary.

"At this point Taylor's really stepped into that role and I would say asserted himself from a leadership standpoint and a communicator standpoint," head coach Sean McDermott said. "Which is huge in that back end where next to him, who is it going to be?"

The Bills also added Mike Edwards and Dee Delaney in free agency along with Cole Bishop in the draft to shore up their safety room. Rapp will still have to earn his starting role during training camp, but his knowledge of Buffalo's defense and his leadership skills make him a candidate to contribute in a big way in 2024.

DE A.J. Epenesa

Often utilized as an important rotational piece over his first four seasons, the Bills coaching staff believes Epenesa has displayed the talent to be a starting defensive end for the team in 2024. The key for Epenesa to take his game to the next level will be his consistency over a 17-game season.

"We've seen some growth from him. We need to see even more consistency now," head coach Sean McDermott said this offseason. "Because the role he could be in this year is one of those starter roles, and so that consistency is gonna be important for us."

Epenesa had arguably his best season as a pro in 2023, tying his career-high in sacks (6.5) & QB hits (10) and setting career-bests in tackles (20), passes defended (8) and INTs (2). Buffalo showed their confidence in Epenesa this offseason, signing him to a two-year deal.

"I think A.J. can be a great player in this league," DT DaQuan Jones said during minicamp. "I think he can carry that confidence into this season and pick up right where he left off."

The Bills have been known to rotate snaps for both their interior linemen and edge rushers to keep everyone fresh, but Epenesa will be one to watch during camp to come away with a starting role.

Returning from injury: LB Matt Milano, DT DaQuan Jones, LB Von Miller

Milano, Jones and Miller aren't your typical "breakout" candidates. All have earned ample recognition during their careers thus far, but their 2023 season didn't reach expectations because of injury. The healthy return of these players will be a huge boost to the Bills defense as a whole.

Milano suffered a season-ending leg injury in Week 5, Jones suffered pec injury that same game which sidelined him for 10 weeks and Miller missed the first four games of the season on IR.

Looking to the 2024 season, Milano is expected by McDermott to be available to start practicing some time during training camp, Jones is healed from his pec injury and Miller is fully practicing without a knee brace.

"I'm excited to be back healthy, it feels good to see Matt around here and Von, too," Jones said. "I'm just excited to get back out there healthy and just pick up where we left off."

In weeks 1-4 with a healthy Milano and Jones, Buffalo's defense ranked third in the NFL in DVOA and fourth in EPA/play allowed. Those ranks fell to 32nd and 30th, respectively in weeks 5-9.

Milano was able to practice on a limited basis during the Bills minicamp and McDermott believes the LB is working as hard as he can to be at full strength this year.

"Credit to Matt and what he's been able to do with our training staff and the work he's put in. He's so focused. He was focused before this. I feel like he's even more focused, if that's even possible now, in wanting to get back out there for himself, but also for his teammates," McDermott said.

Though Miller returned in Week 5, it was clear he was not at 100% during the season. Miller needed to wear a knee brace for the 12 regular season games he appeared in. He also didn't eclipse higher than 50%. Entering this season, Bills defensive coordinator sees a better version of Von in store.

"There was flashes of some Von Miller there at the end of the year," Babic said. "Von's working hard to get back. Von's a terrific person. The expectation is that minute by minute, we're just continuing to get better and continuing to hone back in on the skills and to train the skills that are needed for him to impact the game like we need him to."

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