Even after showing signs of life in a new 3-4 defense in 2012, in which he accumulated four sacks, Jerry Hughes was unceremoniously traded from the Indianapolis Colts to the Buffalo Bills last April. Colts fans seemed happy at the time, but then watched as Hughes finally came into his own as a NFL pass rusher for the Bills, posting 10 sacks during the 2013 season.
Hughes, the 2010 first-round pick out of TCU who will be just 26 years old this August, made his big jump playing for defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. A designated pass rusher in that scheme, Hughes saw most of his work on passing downs, where he would either rush the passer off the edge - he was the most efficient pass rusher on the team in that capacity - or drop into zone coverage as Pettine dialed up an overload rush off the edge. It was the perfect hybrid role for Hughes, playing to his strength while highlighting his excellent athleticism.
Pettine, however, is now the head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Jim Schwartz, former head coach of the Detroit Lions, takes his place as Buffalo's defensive coordinator, and with his arrival comes a shift in expectations for Hughes.
Schwartz is a 4-3 guy, whereas Pettine runs more of an odd-front defense that relies on disguise. As such, it's not expected that Hughes will be moving around as much, or dropping as often, as he did last season. Instead, he's now expected to be a starting defensive end - one that will still be counted on to provide a consistent pass rush while taking on the added responsibility of more snaps, especially on run downs.
It's the potential of that added run-down responsibility that makes Hughes one of the most important players on the team entering the 2014 season. Assuming that Pro Bowl teammates Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, and Marcell Dareus all pick up where they left off last year, Hughes should continue to reap the statistical rewards of playing next to fellow linemen that will command more attention from blocking schemes. Those four players combined for 41 sacks last season, and as a quartet, they could eventually be recognized as one of the league's most potent starting defensive lines. It's consistently defending the run where the Bills need to make more noticeable gains on defense, and that's an area of the game where Hughes remains highly unproven.
True enough, the team may end up splitting off the run-down aspect of that full-time end role to a platoon including Manny Lawson (not a snug fit as a base 4-3 end) and Jarius Wynn (also not a snug fit as a base 4-3 end). Neither will come close to threatening Hughes' role as a pass rusher, and likely won't play nearly as much as Hughes anyway, but it's an option if Hughes proves to be utterly incompetent against the run.
Ideally, however, Hughes continues to morph from the bust that Colts fans thought he was into a talented, every-down capable pass rusher in the NFL. If he does that, Buffalo's defensive line will leave the territory of very good, and it'll be considered elite.
This post continues a series in which we'll discuss the ten most important Bills players entering the new season. We'll update this list each time a new entry in the series posts.