Mario Williams headlines deeper stable of Buffalo Bills pass rushers

Timothy T. Ludwig-US PRESSWIRE

The Buffalo Bills have some big decisions to make with their pass rushers; divvying up playing time will be the biggest among them.

When it comes to understanding the new defense being installed by Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, defining the team's pass rushers and edge defenders is easily the most difficult task at hand. Many of the names within this specific group of players will wear several different hats; we could literally see players on this list lined up at defensive tackle, safety and everywhere in between in 2013.

Still, there's a theme here: all of these players will play on the perimeter of the defense, even if they're not strictly pass rushers. Many are, but others are strong-side linebacker candidates that can cover tight ends and play contain in the run game. We'll explain more below, but this is a position that has a lot of big story lines entering training camp.

Mario Williams

  • Age: 28
  • Contract: Signed through the 2017 season. Scheduled to make $6.5 million in base salary in 2013. Due an $8 million option bonus which may have already been paid. Has also been paid a $500,000 workout bonus. Full contract details

Mario Williams was not the Bills' best defender a year ago, but he's certainly paid like it. The highest-paid defender in NFL history recorded 10.5 sacks in 2012 - his first double-digit sack season since 2008, and the Bills' first since Aaron Schobel had 10 in 2009 - yet was still a disappointment to some thanks to monumental expectations. Now fully healthy (he battled through a wrist injury much of the season), Williams should benefit from Pettine's new system simply by having a more versatile role; it will be harder for teams to know where he's going to be pre-snap. The Bills will use Williams to create advantageous matchups elsewhere, and he's certain to see more good looks come his way, as well. Expectations will once again be huge, but Williams could have a more impactful season in the new scheme.

Manny Lawson

  • Age: 28 (29 in July)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2016 season. Scheduled to make $1.6 million in base salary in 2013. Has already been paid a $3 million signing bonus.

Lawson was the first player the Bills added to play in the new defense, and it's not hard to see why: he's a very unique athlete that can do a lot of different things for you. He's paid like a starter and will be in the lineup an awful lot, as the Bills will look to take advantage of his ability to run down the seam with tight ends and rush the passer off the edge. How effective he is in the latter role may very well determine the fates - both in terms of roster availability and playing time roles - of the other names on this list. Lawson could very well end up being a three-down player for Buffalo, but for now, it's fairer to assume he'll be an early-down guy that cedes pass rushing reps in obvious passing situations.

Mark Anderson

  • Age: 30
  • Contract: Signed through the 2015 season. Scheduled to make $2.4 million in base salary in 2013.

The other defensive end that the Bills signed last off-season didn't provide as much to the team as his much richer counterpart, thanks largely to a knee injury that required two surgeries to fix. Anderson finished his first year in Buffalo with more surgeries than sacks (one), and now he's looking like a situational pass rusher for Pettine. It doesn't make sense for the team to cut him, despite popular fan sentiment - his contract is not remotely prohibitive, and you can never have enough pass rushers - but Pettine has made it clear that Anderson is in line for a specialist role this season.

Jerry Hughes

  • Age: 24 (25 in August)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2014 season. Scheduled to make $870,000 in base salary in 2013.

Hughes is an interesting story: the former first-round pick in Indianapolis was a massive disappointment in his first two seasons, then showed signs of competence as a part-timer in the 3-4 a year ago, recording four sacks. The Bills acquired Hughes from Indy in exchange for linebacker Kelvin Sheppard this off-season, and in doing so are now on the other side of a watered-down version of Aaron Maybin's story: bust draft pick looks to redeem career in new locale. Hughes will compete for a pass rushing specialist role, but is also athletic enough to get looks on early downs from time to time.

Marcus Dowtin

  • Age: 24
  • Contract: Signed through the 2015 season. Scheduled to make $480,000 in base salary in 2013.

Keith Pough

  • Age: 23
  • Contract: Signed through the 2015 season. Scheduled to make $405,000 in base salary in 2013.

Here are two more players acquired this off-season - Dowtin on waivers, Pough as an undrafted free agent - that trend more towards "traditional linebacker" than edge defender in a hybrid defense. We include them here because both are considered candidates for the same SAM linebacker position that Lawson will handle, though perhaps only situationally. Pough profiles as a traditional linebacker type, and it wouldn't be surprising if he lands somewhere inside. Dowtin, however, is a player that Pettine has said can play outside, inside and at safety. He's a sleeper candidate for a legitimate role if he can put together a strong roster bid this summer.

Jamie Blatnick

  • Age: 24
  • Contract: Contract length undisclosed. Scheduled to make $405,000 in base salary in 2013.

Kourtnei Brown

  • Age: 25
  • Contract: Contract length undisclosed. Scheduled to make $405,000 in base salary in 2013.

These two street free agent pass rushers were signed by the Bills after a successful tryout during the team's rookie minicamp. Blatnick has made some waves through summer practices, but both of these players are former college defensive ends looking to flip between end and outside linebacker in Pettine's defense.

Outlook

Williams is the only proven pass rusher on the list, and he'll obviously be a mainstay in every front. He played over 85 percent of the team's defensive snaps last year - an astronomical figure for a defensive lineman - and might approach that territory again. That could change if some of the team's specialists can give him a blow from time to time - namely Lawson, Anderson, Hughes and potentially others.

How the team divvies up playing time between those other contenders is the big question at this position - and that's closely followed by how many pass rushers the team would be likely to keep, and how guys like Dowtin factor into that equation. We do know this: the more versatile a player is the better his chances of being useful in this defense, so some of these guys have a lot on the line this summer.

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