In his two seasons with the Buffalo Bills, defensive end Mario Williams has started 32 straight games and played a total of 1,928 snaps, 86.3 percent of the team's total on defense in that stretch. He plays more than the majority of NFL pass rushers, and as the highest-paid defender in league history, he will continue along that trajectory in 2014.
Williams, however, is the only Bills defensive end that is a mortal lock to be an every-down player for Buffalo this season - one that only comes off the field when he needs a rest. The rest of the Bills' end situation is a bit more complicated, even with a couple of good, veteran players atop the list of playing time candidates.
In 2013, playing under coordinator Mike Pettine, Manny Lawson (then a strong-side linebacker) was on the field for 706 snaps, while pass rushing specialist Jerry Hughes saw 604 reps. This year, however, the Bills are switching back toward a more traditional 4-3 under new coordinator Jim Schwartz - and Hughes, the much more gifted pass rusher of the two, is now the likely starting end opposite Williams, while Lawson, who was an outside linebacker under Pettine, looks like the top rotational end this season.
Unless the Bills need Lawson to be more than simply a rotational player up front. And even if they don't, Buffalo still has intrigue at end, because there will be room for a healthy amount of rotation this season.
Run down complement(s)
The first thing to pay attention to at end this summer is whether or not Hughes can snag an every-down role. That's not to say that we should be expecting Hughes to become as omnipresent on the field as Williams has been; Hughes is not built to withstand that level of physical punishment. But if Hughes can prove to Schwartz, Doug Marrone, and the defensive coaches that he is capable of playing a lot on run downs, then it will have a significant ripple effect on the rest of the position's playing time prospects.
Last season, Hughes had a career year (10 sacks) playing as a nickel and dime pass rusher; he only saw the field on early downs when Lawson, then the starting strong-side linebacker, was injured. The two complemented each other within the context of Pettine's defense. Lawson was the edge-setter and coverage player, while Hughes came in to rush the passer. They were not on the field together much in 2013.
If Hughes remains a rush specialist, then it will open up room in the scheme for a run-down end - and Lawson, or perhaps free agent acquisition Jarius Wynn, will get the first crack at securing that job. Lawson is an experienced player that consistently shows well against the run, but in the Schwartz scheme, he'll be taking on tackles far more often than he did lined up over the tight end for Pettine. The 285-pound Wynn may prove to be a better run-down player for that reason alone. Should that run down role open up, an intriguing battle between Lawson and Wynn (or perhaps someone else) may ensue. Lawson will still be the favorite.
In 2012, Williams' first season with the club, the Bills ran a 4-3 defense under Dave Wannstedt. That year, injuries forced the Bills to play four additional defensive ends - none of which are with the team any longer - a significant number of reps. That, however, was a circumstance largely due to injury; Chris Kelsay and Mark Anderson both went down that season, forcing Kyle Moore and Shawne Merriman into the lineup.
The more intriguing stat from that 2012 campaign: in 16 games, the Bills only used more than three ends in one game on four occasions. They spent three quarters of the season, then, rotating in one reserve end to spell their two nominal starters.
History may not repeat itself under Schwartz, of course. (We certainly hope it doesn't from a defensive production standpoint, let alone a defensive end injury standpoint.) He may have designs on working a fourth end into the rotation, even without a clear-cut option for that role. But clearly, if all goes well and the top players on the depth chart stay healthy, they may decide that making room for Williams, Hughes, and Lawson in the game plan on Sundays is sufficient.
Buffalo will, however, very likely keep a fourth end on the active roster. Assuming Lawson can lock down that third spot, that leaves Wynn - the only other experienced option on the roster - to fend off little-known options like Ikponmwosa Igbinosun (a similar body type and athlete to Wynn), Jacquies Smith, and undrafted rookie Bryan Johnson (who are both much more similar to Lawson and Hughes from a body type standpoint). Wynn has the clear upper hand there, with more physical talent, experience, and positional versatility up front than the rest.