As free agency ramps up, Panthers have already lost 2 starters

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) The Bills‘defensive front quickly took shape Tuesday, when Star Lotulelei agreed to sign with Buffalo, and Kyle Williams chose to return for a 13th season.

A person familiar with the situation confirmed to The Associated Press that Lotulelei reached an agreement to sign a five-year contract with the Bills. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because the signing won’t become official until the NFL’s business year opens on Wednesday.

4. He was an elite draft prospect. Lotulelei won the Morris Trophy in 2011, which is given annually to the best defensive lineman in the Pac-12. Despite some talk he might leave school early for the NFL, he returned for his senior season at Utah, finishing with 42 tackles, five sacks, 11 tackles for loss, four pass breakups, three forced fumbles, and four fumble recoveries. He was named a first-team Associated Press All-American, just the fourth in Utah program history.

After trading Marcell Dareus to the Jaguars last season, a lot of people had one question: What in the world are the Buffalo Bills doing? As it turns out, making more room for former Panthers players.

“A lot of things have to happen, a lot of things have to play out,” Williams said. “I believe whole heartedly that you dont win championships or dont win games by looking at paper and looking at who you have or who you dont have. Thats why you play the game. Thats why you hold guys accountable to the standard that you have. And you go out and compete your tail off and you try to make it happen. Theres a whole lot of things that are going to happen between now and when we kick the football off in September.”

Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane have not been shy in adding former Panthers to the fold, and that is expected to continue with defensive tackle Star Lotulelei reportedly agreeing to terms on a five-year deal with Buffalo, per ESPN.

Lotulelei will be joined on the interior of McDermotts 4-3 defense by the Bills all-time leader in sacks for a defensive tackle: Kyle Williams. Williams has played his entire 11-year career with the Bills, notching 43.5 sacks. The Bills themselves refer to him as the defenses “heart and soul,” and they arent wrong.

“Well you know how I feel about Kyle, what hes meant to our community in Buffalo over the years and what hes meant to our football team,” McDermott. “He meant a lot to me this past season in the way of connecting my message to the locker room at different points throughout the year. So the leadership part of that was big for us. These things will work themselves out over time. I think the fit is important and the fit is there, obviously. Its got to be right, obviously for Kyle and his family, and our situation as well. Brandon has been in touch and well see how that situation works itself out.”

As for Lotulelei, the Panthers drafted him in the first round with the 14th overall pick in 2013. In that span, he has 11.5 sacks and 83 combined tackles. Hes been a steady presence on the field, though some Panthers fans were disillusioned with him in his final years due to poor run stuffing percentages and analytic performance. Losing Lotulelei and Andrew Norwell may hurt the Panthers, but theyll look to retool sooner than later after making the playoffs last year.

Williams, 34, notched 41 tackles, three sacks and a fumble recovery for the Bills in 2017. He earned a 79.9 grade from Pro Football Focus for the season, good for 51st among defensive tackles. Perhaps most notably, he scored a touchdown while lined up at fullback in the teams Week 17 win, helping propel the team to its first playoff berth in 17 years in the process.

Lotulelei had four sacks in 2016, but only 1.5 last year. Of course, as a player that is essentially a nose tackle, sacks arent the end-all-be-all for how he influences the team. But McDermott will likely ask for a lot out of Lotulelei out of the gate, especially for a five-year deal with a player he knows. Lotulelei was mostly a space-eater for the Panthers — Ron Rivera acknowledged as much — but Lotulelei was 45th of 49 defensive tackles that took at least 50 percent of snaps in 2017, according to Pro Football Focus. 

A report indicates that the Bills are going to sign DT Star Lotulelei when free agency begins Wednesday.

Wherever you stand on analytics, Lotulelei will need to get better to justify that contract in Buffalo. He has the potential — he was in the higher tiers of rankings in his first two seasons — but the Bills are clearly betting on his drop-off not being a trend. The Bills were 29th in the league in rushing yards against last year with 124.6 per game. They need to see instant improvement on that number for this investment to be worth it.

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