An anchor of the Buffalo Bills defense will be back next season after sitting out a year.
A new report claims that defensive tackle Star Lotulelei is planning to return to the team after taking a COVID-19 opt-out for the 2020-21 campaign. His expected return could prevent the Bills from needing to fill a hole in the trenches.
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Lotulelei Expected Back
Matthew Fairburn of The Athletic reported on Tuesday that Lotulelei is planning to return to the team to play in the upcoming season. While neither the team nor the defensive tackle have yet confirmed the news, the expected return appears to answer one of the outstanding questions of the offseason.
Lotulelei had been an anchor of the Bills defense through his first two seasons with the team, not missing a game while notching 36 tackles, two sacks and an interception. As the USA Today’s Bills Wire noted last year when he first chose to opt out, his impact stretched far beyond the stat sheet.
“The 30-year-old lineman hasn’t had the sexiest job while with the Bills which earn stats, but his teammates and coaches often tout him as an unselfish player on the field in terms of his role,” the report noted. “Lotulelei’s job in the middle of the D-line is to take up blockers while his teammates get after the quarterback or rusher.”
Lotulelei Faced Retirement Rumors
Ahead of the report that he plans to return, some insiders believed that Lotulelei could instead be headed to retirement. The Athletic’s Joe Buscaglia noted that there were indications the team was planning for him not to return in 2021, putting together what would have been a contingency plan to fill the middle of the defensive line.
“However, there is at least one sign that the Bills could be preparing for his departure,” he wrote. “They kept Vernon Butler over Quinton Jefferson, knowing that Butler can more capably fill in at one-technique defensive tackle, even with Harrison Phillips and Justin Zimmer still on the roster.”
His absence was felt in 2020, with Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News noting that fellow defensive lineman Ed Oliver appeared to be impacted without Lotulelei’s presence and ability to garner extra attention from offensive linemen. Oliver also took more snaps in the position normally occupied by his 6-foot-2, 311-pound teammate.
Losing Lotulelei to retirement would not only have left a hole in the defense, but also hampered the team’s ability to go after other free agents, Buscaglia noted. The team had restructured his contract just before the COVID-19 pandemic that led to his opt out, moving his $4.5 million salary over to 2021. If he had retired, the team would have incurred a $4.7 million cap charge.
The Bills have already taken steps to bring back some other important pieces on defense, including linebacker Matt Milano. Buffalo kept Milano from testing free agency — where he was slated to be one of the top available linebackers — by signing him to a four-year, $44 million extension that keeps him in Buffalo through the 2024 season.