ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — There are “welcome to the league” moments for NFL rookies and then there’s facing a first-team All-Pro on your first professional snap.
Buffalo Bills 2019 first-round pick Ed Oliver drew the latter during the preseason opener against the Indianapolis Colts. The defensive tackle lined up across from Colts left guard Quenton Nelson, who was named All-Pro after a dominant rookie season in 2018.
The matchup was more even than expected and remarkably, Oliver wasn’t aware of Nelson’s status among the NFL’s elite offensive linemen. Oliver clearly wasn’t intimidated, though after reviewing film the rookie said he considers Nelson a good player who deserves respect.
“A talent like that put in front of you, you’ve got to respect him,” Oliver said after the game. “I don’t really know players like that, but after watching film and seeing who he was, you’ve got to respect the man. I respected him before I touched the field but I don’t fear nobody. But I respect all.”
Throughout training camp, Oliver has shown zero fear and an innate understanding of his abilities. He’s been a first-team staple since the day full pads came on, though Bills coaches acknowledge he has work to do. He is a rookie, after all, one who is still learning the playbook, his role in the scheme and how to adjust when opponents try to limit his impact.
But confidence? He’s good in that department.
“I don’t think he lacks for confidence,” coach Sean McDermott said. “It’s probably not one of the areas we need to work with him on, but I do appreciate the way that he’s adjusted his approach and worked on his craft. I think that’s the best thing he can do right now, continue to work and the rest will come.”
Oliver’s confidence has been well-documented up to this point. It showed during his meeting with the Bills at the NFL combine, when he asked a room full of decision-makers if, “y’all got jackets?” — a playful reference to his disciplinary episode with then-University of Houston coach Major Applewhite.
It was clear in the days leading up to that first preseason game, when Oliver was asked whether he’d take a moment to “soak it all in.”
“I’m supposed to be here,” he said, seemingly surprised anyone believed another option existed.
But that confidence should not be confused with rookie bravado; when offered bait, he won’t take it.
That became clear during the Bills’ joint practices with the Carolina Panthers last week when Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and Bills cornerback Captain Munnerlyn joked about who had “won” practice the previous day.
The boisterous Newton decided to poke some fun at Oliver, taunting him as he walked by.
“When we get done with 91, he’s gonna need an asthma pump, a gas mask,” Newton quipped to Munnerlyn.
Oliver briefly paused before moving along. When it was clear Newton’s joking wasn’t over, Oliver stopped again, turning to face the 2015 NFL MVP as if to give Newton a chance to address him directly. The QB kept up his discussion with Munnerlyn and Oliver walked away without a word.
“[Oliver] didn’t say nothing, he didn’t say nothing at all,” Munnerlyn said Sunday. “I did enough talking for him. He just stared at [Newton], that’s all.”
There were no hard feelings between Oliver and Newton; the former admitted Sunday that Newton’s ribbing was “nothing” and simply caught him by surprise.
As for Oliver’s lack of a verbal response, jawing with opponents is just not his style.
“You go out there and just play and let your play talk for you — I ain’t into talking a lot, I’m not a big talker,” Oliver said. He smiled before quickly clarifying: “Unless it’s with my teammates, I talk trash to my teammates all the time. But as far as my opponents, I ain’t never really had to say too much.”
Oliver says he’s only recently worked his way up to that type of interaction with his teammates, careful not to make the wrong type of wave when he first joined the team. He has opened up some, even visiting fellow defensive tackle Jordan Phillips‘ home. Their ability to bond over common interests — a love of cars and dogs, among other things — was the byproduct of the rookie’s emotional wall gradually coming down.
“One of the things I’ve complimented him on just yesterday — he’s becoming more open to talking with his teammates and integrating with his teammates,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said Tuesday. “There was a period where a wall was kind of up and teammates, they can really help you if you allow them to — especially the veteran guys.
“He had his guard up for a while but you can see that guard coming down now … that means there’s a comfort level beginning to set in a little bit.”
Oliver needing some time to come out of his shell was no big deal to his teammates.
“That’s just human nature,” said cornerback Tre’Davious White, who quickly bonded with Oliver over their connection to Shreveport, Louisiana. “When you’re new somewhere, you’ve got to feel it out. Before you can be yourself, you’ve just got to feel it out and see how you can interact with certain people.”
With training camp behind them, Oliver’s teammates are seeing who he is. A hard-worker? Absolutely, defensive end Shaq Lawson said.
Quiet? Not anymore.
“Ed? Quiet? Nah, that boy talk. I call him Tasmanian Devil, that boy’s got so much energy,” Lawson said. “He goes hard … He’s running around, he causes havoc. [He’s a] smart young player, when you find a young player that loves the game like that as much as he does, they’re going to be successful.”
The Bills drafted Oliver to help improve their 26th-ranked pass rush from 2018, hoping he’ll provide a disruptive presence who can provide interior pressure and open lanes for edge rushers such as Lawson, Jerry Hughes and Trent Murphy.
His on-field responsibilities should become second nature through practice reps and diverse matchups, and if the early returns are any indication, that help might come sooner than McDermott, GM Brandon Beane, or anyone else expected — anyone except Oliver, of course.
Because even as he adjusts to life in the NFL, it’s clear Oliver’s confidence is a strength.
“He’s getting better every day, man,” Lawson said. “I’ve just seen a huge jump from OTAs to preseason Week 3. He’s continued to get better and it shows on film — causing havoc and putting pressure on the quarterback.
“It’s not normal, a guy like him. Just got here, first-round pick — but he loves the game so much, it’s like [he’s] been in the league for a couple years.”