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How the Bills can turn Ed Oliver into the special pass rusher he was meant to be

Retired NFL defensive end Stephen White breaks down why he’s so excited to see Buffalo use Oliver the right way.

The Buffalo Bills picked Ed Oliver ninth overall in the 2019 NFL Draft. Here’s what Stephen White had to say about Oliver ahead of the draft:

I’m honestly quite excited to see Ed Oliver develop on the next level because I’m pretty sure he is about to take a huge leap forward as a player in the NFL.

Oliver played the hell out of a zero nose in college, but I don’t think anyone believes that’s where he’ll be playing as a professional.

That isn’t to say that he didn’t do a good job there. Hell, he did a fantastic job most of the time. But at his size, and with his power, speed, and quickness, NFL teams are a lot more likely to have him lined up out in the B gap, or wider, instead.

I don’t want to say using him so much at zero nose was a waste of his talent at Houston, but I cannot tell a lie. I’m sure the coaches had their reasons, but I doubt I would agree with any of them. With as many plays as he made from a zero nose, I have a feeling he would have been way more ridiculous if it had been in a three-technique or a four-technique on a more regular basis.

The shame of it all is that in the four games I watched Oliver, with all of his impressive physical tools, he was rarely put in position to just fire straight off the ball and get upfield to create havoc. That was more than just a little bit frustrating for me as an analyst.

Here you have a guy who is killing people with his quickness on one play, then dumping them on their ass with his power on the next, but he had to do all these wondrous things from mostly either heavy or head-up alignments in the games that I watched. What I mean by that is that he was either aligned head-up on an offensive lineman, which isn’t a good alignment for trying to fire off upfield, or he was in a “heavy” alignment. That means he was technically shaded to one side or the other, like a 2i on the inside half of the guard, but it wasn’t much of a shade and he was still staring across at least a half a man when he was in his stance.

Again, I’m sure his coaching staff had their reasons, but selfishly I would have liked to have seen Oliver lined up in the gaps a helluva lot more. It would have put him in much better position to really showcase the totality of his talents, which would have in turn allowed him to make even more big plays, which also probably would have translated into more success for his team, in general.

As the song goes, however, we can’t always get what we want, so instead I just have to go by what I did see, and then try to extrapolate from there when projecting who and what I think Oliver should be on the next level. I will say that even with all my bellyaching, this kid was a joy to watch on film.

[Good pick, Bills? 2019 NFL Draft first round grades]

Oliver’s strength can embarrass offensive linemen.

Let’s talk about his explosion right off the bat, because that one of the first things that jumped off the screen at me.

I hardly ever see a nose tackle who consistently has the best get-off on his defensive line, but with Oliver it wasn’t even close on most plays. He’d be off the ball and engaging with the opposing offensive linemen while his teammates were still stuck in their stances.

And not only was he quick off the ball, but his explosion also was readily apparent in how forcefully he took on blockers. When teams made the mistake of trying to block Oliver one-on-one, he was routinely able to rock that blocker back by getting good hand placement inside on their breast plates, getting full extension with his arms, and exploding out of his hips.

I just didn’t see many plays where one guy got him pushed off the ball. The overwhelming majority of the time he sent them flying backward, at least initially. I can’t be sure how many times Oliver will be able to bench press 225 pounds at the combine, but what I do know is on film he plays like he is strong as a damn ox. I literally saw him take an offensive lineman and use him to tackle a running back for a loss of 4 yards in one game.

No matter what his combine numbers turn out to be, it’s pretty clear on tape he is plenty strong enough to play in the league. In fact, if a team wanted to use him from time to time at zero nose, I’m pretty sure he would hold up well there in the NFL, too. The dude showed the athletic traits that will give him at least the potential for being a really dominant player against the run in the pros.

What Oliver lacks in size, he makes up for in speed and power.

But, before you get the wrong idea, Oliver is not some big, lumbering goon on the field. As impressive as his displays of strength and power were in the four games that I watched, his lateral quickness was just as remarkable.

Houston had him stunting laterally quite a bit, and he was excellent at it. He was so quick that he could often make centers or guards completely whiff when they tried to block him; then he’d immediately stick his foot in the ground and shoot upfield looking to take whomever had the ball down behind the line of scrimmage.

It was actually Oliver’s unique combination of power and quickness that allowed him to hold up so well playing zero nose as much as he did, even though he isn’t a huge guy by any means at 6’2 and 290 pounds. Playing inside like that, and just because he was a badass in college, Oliver had to face a ton of double-teams and other kinds of extra attention, and it didn’t seem to bother him one bit.

When he recognized a double-team, he would smartly come off hard at one guy to try to knock him back and create separation before the second guy could get over and try to join the party.

On several occasions, that allowed him to not only hold his ground but also eventually split those double-teams without being moved off the ball very much, if at all. He also employed this technique as a pass rusher to pretty good effect, as well.

How Oliver uses his hands will take him far at the next level.

I still don’t think Houston should’ve played him at nose tackle as much as it did in those games, but there is no question that he balled out when he was lined up there. Of course on the occasions when the coaches had him aligned wider, he balled the F out there, too. He was always playing on the opponent’s side of the line of scrimmage, and while he wasn’t always the guy who ended up making the tackle for a loss, he was often the guy who forced it.

In addition to his power and quickness, another thing I was impressed with was how active and effective Oliver was with his hands. A lot of guys with his physical tools are good college players, but end up failing on the next level because they never work on escaping off blocks. It’s simply too easy for them to make plays in college most weeks, so they never really hone their technique. I see it every year from a prospect or two that I do a breakdown on, and it is never not infuriating to watch.

In Oliver’s case, however, he generally did a really good job of using his hands to keep blockers off of him. He was also really good at using escape moves like rips and arm-overs to get off of the blockers once it was time for him to try to make a tackle.

That’s truly a big deal for me and something I look for and value when I’m evaluating defensive line prospects, because that will translate over well for Oliver in the NFL.

No matter what level of competition you face, using good technique will always give you a better chance of making plays. At some point you are always going to meet your match physically, and it is those instances when you need good technique the most. If you are used to just reaching out and trying to tackle somebody without escaping off the block because you used to be able to get away with it in college, you will surely wind up getting dumptrucked when you face better competition in the NFL.

But that isn’t something a team will have to worry about with Oliver, for the most part.

Unlike at college, whichever team that drafts him will give him a chance to shine as a pass rusher.

As much as anything, the reason why I was most disappointed that Houston didn’t see fit to line Oliver up in the gaps more is because I just didn’t get to see Oliver on many plays as a true pass rusher in the four games I watched. Oh, he still managed to get some heat on the opposing quarterbacks and although he didn’t end up with any sacks in those four games, he did still end up with nine pressures.

But most of those were on plays where he wasn’t in a gap alignment and they usually came on early downs. That he was able to be that productive as a pass rusher was a great testament to how good of a player he was in spite of the scheme he was playing in.

On third downs sometimes, Houston had Oliver stunting laterally to go from the A gap to being the containment element of the defense, either because of a blitz or a three-man rush. That’s what we used to call a “hot” stunt.

And if you were confused about this, most of the time the players running those stunts from the A gap or B gap to being the containment element of the defense are not meant to get any pressure on the quarterback. All they are supposed to do is even up the pass-rush lanes and, in the event of a blitz, make sure the quarterback can’t escape outside, away from where the blitz is coming.

Just based on the limited pass-rushing reps I did see from Oliver, he looked to be one of your best, if not your best, pass rushers, but you don’t allow him to get up the field to pass rush?

What part of the game is that?

I just don’t get it.

It seems to me it would have been so much easier to just line him up at three-technique on most third downs, let him destroy one of the guards and maybe the center, and allow the other guys to play off him. Even if he didn’t have a single decent pass-rush move, with his skill set Oliver would have likely killed most of the offensive guards he faced just with his quickness and power.

After seeing how teams tried to double him all the time, even when he wasn’t the three-technique, at the very least he could’ve have drawn enough attention that his teammates would have had an easier time trying to get to the quarterback.

The crazy thing is watching how good he was with his hands in other situations and even on some of his pass-rush reps from inside, I’m pretty sure Oliver does have some pretty good pass-rush moves, but he just wasn’t put in position to showcase them all that much. At least not in the four games I watched.

Well, aside from his bull rush, which, unsurprisingly, he was very effective with.

Oliver can still be coached up, but he’s got a motor that can’t be taught.

From what I have seen, Oliver already has all the traits of a good interior pass rusher, and, with a little bit of technique work, there is a decent chance he could eventually develop into a great one.

One of the biggest reasons I feel really good about Oliver as a prospect is because the guy hustled his ass off on the field. If you have read any of my work, you know how much I admire a guy who mashes the gas to the ball constantly, and this guy kept showing up down the field on film.

Oliver wasn’t just getting in some cardio, either. He was looking to take cats’ heads off. I saw the guy hauling ass over 20 yards down the field and making the tackle on one play.

I also saw him chase down a screen from behind and blow up the running back on the tackle.

When you have a guy with that kind of motor, I feel like it shouldn’t be that hard to get him coached up a little in the technique department. Oliver isn’t exactly “raw” to begin with, so it’s not like he is going to have to start from scratch.

Hell, right now, today, he already has shown me some pretty good power moves. For all I know he may well already have some fantastic finesse moves as well.

But even if he doesn’t, I see nothing on his film that leads me to believe Oliver can’t learn some moves develop into a top-notch interior pass rusher in the NFL. And when it comes to defensive linemen in this era of football, that’s what it’s all about.

It’s pretty much a given for me that Oliver will be outstanding against the run in the NFL, but, as I have said before, I really don’t value one-trick run defenders on the defensive line enough to take one in the first round. For me to take a guy that high he has to be able to get after the passer. So there is at least some risk with Oliver in that I didn’t actually see him pass rush the way I think he will be able to when he is put in better alignments. But my doubts on that front are pretty low.

He has an NFL equivalent, but it’s NOT Aaron Donald.

On another note, I heard an announcer in one of the games compare him to Aaron Donald, but their pass-rush film is one of the major differences between Oliver and Donald coming out of college. When I did Donald’s breakdown back in the day, I actually saw him move up and down the line whupping ass as a pass rusher. In fact, Donald was one of the most polished pass rushers I’ve ever seen coming out of college.

So I don’t think it’s fair to put those kinds of expectations on Oliver. While I believe he will eventually do well as a pass rusher, folks have to give him time to develop, and I fear with the comparison to Donald people will rush to call him a bust if he isn’t racking up sacks right out of the gate.

The truth of the matter is Donald is a generational talent. He may well be the best interior defensive lineman to ever play the game when his career is all said and done. Oliver doesn’t need to be judged by such a high bar right now when he isn’t close to being as polished as Donald was when he came out. And, quite frankly, most other defensive line prospects shouldn’t have that comparison hung around their necks, either.

I’ll tell you who Oliver actually does remind me of and that’s Robert Nkemdiche back when he was at his best in college.

The quickness.

The explosiveness.

The power.

Both guys are very similar football traits-wise and not far off when it comes to their physical dimensions. Where Oliver separates himself from Nkemdiche is he already plays with better technique, play in and play out, and with more discipline than Nkemdiche ever did. Oliver, right now, is already who a lot of people, myself included, thought Nkemdiche could eventually develop into. I know Nkemdiche has been disappointing so far as a pro, but I’m not making the comparison as a knock on Oliver.

It’s been a while, but plenty of folks thought Nkemdiche would be a beast on the next level when he came out of school. I’m saying that I see Oliver a similar prospect who is already closer to being a beast than Nkemdiche was when he was drafted in the first round.

And, again, I think Oliver still has a lot of room to grow, so his ceiling should actually be higher than Nkemdiche’s heading into the league. Oliver also, to my knowledge, doesn’t have anything like the off-field baggage that came with Nkemdiche, either.

That being said, Oliver will still need to test and measure well at the combine before we will see just how high his stock will go. For me, he looks like a top half of the first round guy on tape, but we all know how the NFL loves measurables.

No matter how high or low he is picked, I see Oliver as a pretty safe prospect. He is both stout and athletic enough to play multiple positions on the defensive line, he has plenty of functional strength, and he has a motor that won’t quit. Barring injury or something unforeseen off the field, Oliver has the potential to be a Pro Bowl-type guy by his third year in the league, and I don’t think any team that drafts him will end up being disappointed that it did.

For the purposes of this breakdown I watched former Houston defensive lineman Ed Oliver play against Rice, Arizona, Texas Tech, and Memphis. Those represented the first, second, third, and 12th games on Houston’s schedule last season, respectively.