The Bills defensive linemen came to training camp this year with something to prove.
In 2020, the defensive line faced its share of adversity trying to get new players acclimated to the Bills defense, a new position coach and no in-person practices throughout the offseason due to the pandemic. The group didn't have the time they needed to learn each other's playing styles to be able to work off that.
This season is a different story. The defensive line has a year of experience under position coach Eric Washington, and they know what to expect from him. Veteran Star Lotulelei returned after opting out of last season. The Bills front office also used their first two 2021 draft picks on pass rushers to bring more youth, speed, and size to the position group.
Mario Addison, who tied for the team lead with 5.0 sacks last season, was amazed by the moves made by the front office on draft night. He came to Buffalo to be a pass rusher but got worn down with how much he was used in 2020. With players like Greg Rousseau, Boogie Basham, A.J. Epenesa and Efe Obada ready to contribute, he feels that he can take on a different role this season, stay fresh, and be more disruptive on every play.
The veteran pass rusher had high compliments for both Basham and Rousseau and is excited to be able to coach them up this season.
"Boogie has a bigger frame," Addison stated. "He's real powerful, but he runs like a defensive end so speed to power. (If) he uses his hands, he's going to dominate whoever is in front of him every time."
"So, looking up to [Rousseau] and seeing how he's setting the edge, rushing, and using all his length, it's tremendous," Addison said. "He's coming off the ball punching and the guy is barely getting out of his stance. I'm like, 'Damn, we have long arms.' You have to use those to your advantage. Both of those guys are very coachable, and they are going to be [tough players] in this league.
Addison struggled mentally last season because of the loss of his younger brother in 2019. He tried to keep his mind on football, but it wasn't always there. He has come back to camp more refreshed than ever with a new mentality and a new love for the game.
"Mario's back," McDermott said. "He looks good. I think he's in a good mental space, speaking of the mental piece of the game. And with that, when you're in a good spot, he's in shape ready to go, it makes it all that much easier to help others. So, lead yourself first and lead others second is what he's done to this point in camp in just over a week here."
Star Lotulelei also returned to camp refreshed after sitting out last season. He's glad to be back with his teammates and is eager to achieve the goals that the team has this season. His ability to eat up space and take on double-team blocks will free up his teammates to make big plays. Leslie Frazier is excited to have him back at practice and is eager to see him back in a game setting.
"Star's presence makes a difference," Frazier said. … "Just the way he handles himself in practice and in meetings, it sends a reverberation throughout our defensive line and throughout the entire defense. His work ethic and his ability to make plays, it's going to impact our entire defense."
So far in training camp, A.J. Epenesa looks a lot different than he did his rookie year. He put in work this offseason with the training staff to get to the ideal body weight. The second-year pass rusher looks stronger, faster, and more confident coming off the edge. Addison is proud of the young player for the work he did to transition from year one to year two. With a more regular offseason for Epenesa, Addison thinks the sky is the limit for what he can do.
"A.J. is ready," Addison said. "Hands down. A.J. is ready. The things that he did last year, he did good last year. But the things he's doing now, watch out for A.J.."
The Bills have a lot of depth along the defensive line which should help keep guys fresh throughout games. The team has a good mix of veteran experience and young players with god-given physical traits and a lot of potential. Ed Oliver knows this team can be special, they just have to put the work in now in order to achieve their goals later.
"They did a great job of drafting guys to put around me and the guys that are already here—Jerry and Mario," Oliver said. "So, we have all the things, all the tools, even Efe. We have all the tools just to go out there and be great. All we have to do is just make it happen on Sundays."
Scroll through to see the best photos from day 6 of Bills training camp, presented by Connors & Ferris.