2021 Buffalo Bills Training Camp Injury Preview- Defensive Tackle

This is the 2021 Training Camp Preview for the Buffalo Bills Defensive Tackle room. This will outline every known injury from 2020 and outlook heading into 2021.

Brandin Bryant

Appeared in 1 game.

Appearing in only 7 defensive snaps during Week 8, Bryant spent most of the season on the practice squad due to the updated practice squad rules. He did not suffer any publicly known injuries and has been relatively healthy during his professional career. He may continue to be a break glass in case of emergency due to injury if he finds himself on the practice squad again.

Vernon Butler

Appeared in 14 games, 3 postseason games.

After coming over from Carolina as a former first-round pick, the Bills continued to kick the tires on his potential, signing him to a 2-year contract. While the defensive line in general rotates to keep fresh, Butler didn’t make much of an impact during his time on the field. Whether that was scheme or talent that led to his lack of production, several injuries didn’t help his case. Injuries include:

  • Hamstring strain, preseason, missed 1 game in Week 1.
  • Groin strain, Week 7, missed 1 game.
  • Left ankle injury, Week 15, missed 0 games.
  • Quadriceps injury, Divisional round, missed 0 games.

Looking back at Butler’s known injuries, he doesn’t have a prior history of soft tissue injuries such as the strains listed above. There could be a number of factors that led to this, but they seemed to follow him all year. All the strains listed above are cause for concern heading into this season. A recurrence of any of those could really hamper his ability to make the team.

If he fails to make the team, he has a dead cap hit of $3.5 million but the team would save paying him $5.3 million, netting a savings of $2.1 million. It’s better than nothing, but the hope is that Butler can produce anywhere close to where he was in his final year in Carolina and avoid some of the nagging injuries that can linger into this season.

Star Lotulelei

Sat out 2020 due to COVID-19.

Don’t know what you got until it’s gone. The glam metal band Cinderella sang those words 33 years ago and they still ring true today. That’s the theme with Lotulelei who sat out last year due to COVID-19 concerns. 

During a routine echocardiogram in 2013 during the NFL Combine, it was found that he had a low ejection fraction of 44 percent which is the portion of fluid pumped from the heart during each contraction; normal values vary between 55 and 70 percent. This was concerning as a low ejection fraction could eventually lead to heart failure or issues with conditioning, not something that high level athletes would be able to perform with. This was the result of a viral infection that resolved itself and he was eventually medically cleared.

Considering he had one viral infection affect his heart and ultimately cause his draft stock to slide, Lotulelei wasn’t going to take any chances by playing this season. While not publicly acknowledged, his concerns were likely later validated by tight end Tommy Sweeney’s myocarditis diagnosis after contracting COVID, hence the opt-out. 

Injury wise, the biggest concern I have is acclimation injuries after a year off of football. It appears as though he has been staying in shape, but I expect the team to monitor him closely to prevent him from overworking and missing further time.

Justin Zimmer

Appeared in 12 games, 3 postseason games.

The well-traveled journeyman appeared to have found a home in Buffalo, validating the talent that the front office saw in him. His biggest play of the year may have been the game-saving forced fumble on Patriots QB Cam Newton at the end of Week 8, but he was a factor all season and earned every snap.

He only suffered a groin strain during the Wild Card game against the Colts but did not miss anytime. The fact that he produced so much last season and has a fairly clean injury history bodes well for his chances to make the roster in 2021, but is far from a guarantee. If he does make the roster, I have little concern from an injury perspective, but his talent may determine his fate.

Ed Oliver

Appeared in 16 games, 3 postseason games.

For a player that is expected to have a breakout 3rd season with the Bills, he must avoid injury to have them consider picking up his 5th year option following the season. He dealt with several injuries that likely had some effect on his performance, but not having a strong one-tech defensive tackle to eat up blockers limited Oliver’s ability to get into the backfield. Injury wise:

  • Sore hip, preseason.
  • Right knee contusion, possible hyperextension, Week 2, missed 0 games.
  • Ankle injury, Wild Card, missed 0 games.

The only concerning injury from Oliver’s season was the right knee injury when his leg was in the air and collided with another player, causing a direct contusion and hyperextension to the knee. He was dealing with swelling later on, requiring the knee to be drained and wearing a hinged brace afterward. His production did dip the following week, but the effects of the injury did not hamper him for long. 

I have little concern for injury from Oliver as he has Lotulelei returning in the one-tech spot, allowing Oliver to get into the backfield and be the dominant defensive tackle that he was drafted to be in 2019.

Harrison Phillips

Appeared in 12 games, 3 postseason games.

After returning from a left ACL tear in early 2019, Phillips took even longer to return to pre-injury form, declared inactive several times throughout the season. He stepped up his game in the final quarter of the season and playoffs, showing the type of player that he was drafted to be in 2018.

He didn’t suffer any publicly reported injuries but he is proof that a decline in performance after an ACL tear does exist. He is still within the 2-year window to suffer a re-tear of the ACL, but he is on the very back end of that timeline. I do not have concerns he will tear, especially since his original injury was due to a direct contact of the knee versus the more common non-contact mechanism of injury.

He will need a big season to have the team consider a contract extension, but he has demonstrated his abilities as a leader and his play at least keeps him in consideration. 

New to the roster:

Eli Ankou

He comes to Buffalo following several stops around the league with few injury concerns. He doesn’t have an easy road to the roster, but could end up on the practice squad unless injuries occur. 

Treyvon Hester

Hester comes to the Bills after bouncing around the league with minimal injuries but had torn labrums in each shoulder while in college. He can’t be discounted from making the roster, but could be a good practice squad candidate especially with how the practice squad and injured reserve rules will stay in place for 2021.

Not returning:

Quinton Jefferson

Appeared in 16 games, 3 postseason games.

Already moving onto the Raiders, Jefferson was quickly cut more so due to his contract and lack of production compared to his pay. 

He dealt with foot, knee, hip, and ankle injuries through the season, not missing games, but never quite being fully healthy. He was supposed to be the versatile player that could play inside and outside but never consistently showed those abilities to stick around. 

2021 Injury Expectations:

Like the defensive end position, this group as a whole is relatively healthy. Concerning players include Butler due to the various strains he dealt with last year and Lotulelei having a year off. The entire defensive front can thrive under the right circumstances and if they can stay healthy.