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Buffalo Bills might need a pass-rushing Plan B in 2015

Mario Williams remains, but a pending scheme change and Jerry Hughes' upcoming free agency could leave the Bills with some scrambling to do at their edge rusher position.

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Regardless of the defensive scheme they have been playing in, Buffalo Bills pass rushers Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes have emerged as one of the league's most formidable and disruptive duos over the last two seasons together. Williams has racked up two Pro Bowl bids and a first team All-Pro spot alongside his 27.5 sacks, while Hughes' 20 sacks will make him a valued commodity on the free agent market next month. That's 47.5 sacks in 32 combined games together, for those of you keeping track.

Despite changing defenses for a fifth consecutive offseason, which could affect his role, the team has already apparently been working to re-sign Hughes. But the team might be able to use that scheme change to justify offering Hughes a smaller contract despite his production, as it's no lock that he'd be an every-down defender. Take a look at how his role grew (and another player's shrank) between 2013 and 2014, when the team moved from Mike Pettine's defense to Jim Schwartz's.

Player 2013 snaps 2014 snaps
Mario Williams 999 (87.2%) 788 (72.5%)
Jerry Hughes 604 (52.8%) 782 (71.9%)
Manny Lawson 706 (61.7%) 340 (31.3%)

There are, of course, extenuating circumstances that we'll cover below - namely, Williams' decreased workload (and increased production). Needless to say, though, the Hughes situation will play an enormous role in how the team addresses their edge-rushing position this offseason. If he ends up leaving, the team will immediately be in the market for, at minimum, a situational pass rusher.

Current personnel

Mario Williams

  • Age: 30
  • 2015 cap #: $19.4M
  • 2014 snaps: 788 (72.5% of total)

2014 was Williams' best season as a pro; he has emerged as one of the best run-defending ends in the NFL, and his 14.5 sacks were a career high. Williams earned his spot on the All-Pro team. What will be interesting to monitor heading into 2015 will be if Rex Ryan and Dennis Thurman, in bringing their defense back to the organization, will continue to put a cap on Williams' rep counts the way Schwartz did. More plays off led to a more effective Williams last season.

Jerry Hughes

  • Age: 26 (27 on August 13)
  • 2015 cap #: unrestricted free agent
  • 2014 snaps: 782 (71.9% of total)

Hughes' expanded role in 2014 is still mostly considered a move borne of a scheme change, but the previous coaching staff's desire to cut down Williams' reps may have played a part in his nearly 20 percent year over year growth in defensive involvement, as well. Plus, he'd earned more playing time with his 10-sack season in 2013 after the Bills acquired him via trade. Even if Ryan doesn't view Hughes as an early-down player in his scheme - the chances of that seem iffy - it's not as if the Bills would be paying premium dollar to a guy who would only be playing barely half of the team's snaps. Hughes has earned a prominent spot in any NFL defense, regardless of scheme. He still has some untapped potential.

Manny Lawson

  • Age: 30 (31 on on July 13)
  • 2015 cap #: $3.1M ($1.6M if released)
  • 2014 snaps: 340 (31.3% of total)

Pettine, a Ryan disciple, helped to bring Lawson in prior to the 2013 season, eyeing up the veteran as an ideal strong-side linebacker in his base defense. Lawson played that role well, to the tune of 73 tackles, four sacks, and an interception that season. His role changed dramatically under Schwartz - he was merely a wave reserve - but his versatility will make him an attractive piece for the creative Ryan, even at a $3.1 million cap hit. The Bills are not starved for cap room, and given Hughes' pending free agency, it seems far more likely than not that Lawson will be back in a Bills uniform next season, with a larger role to play in the defense.

Other personnel

Bryan Johnson, a 2014 undrafted free agent defensive end that ended the season on the practice squad, remains with the team. It would not be surprising, either, if Ryan and Thurman looked at 2014 seventh-round pick Randell Johnson, who is an excellent athlete with pass-rushing experience, as an edge rusher in their system.

Offseason needs

If the three names listed above are still on the roster come early September, then functionally, the Bills need nothing more than, perhaps, developmental depth: they have two elite edge rushers and a versatile foil capable of spelling either in the base defense.

Things change, however, if Hughes is out of the picture. Williams and Lawson would be nominal starters, and that would be fine for the base defense, but the team would desperately need a second pass rusher. For all of Lawson's virtues, he does not offer much to that area of the team, and as good as Williams is, he can't be the only quality edge rusher the team employs. If Hughes isn't retained, finding a second pass rusher - even if that player is only on the field situationally - will have to become one of the team's top priorities.