Buffalo Bills pass rushers Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes are currently scheduled to be under contract together, in Buffalo, in the 2015, 2016, and 2017 seasons. That will cost the Bills a pretty penny; the duo will count $25.575 million, $27.475 million, and $26.95 million against the team's salary cap in those three seasons, respectively.
That is the price a team must now pay for a veteran pass-rushing tandem that, in the two years that they have already worked together, have combined for 47.5 sacks and spearheaded one of the NFL's most productive pass-rushing defenses in terms of team sacks. The price tag for two such players underscores just how valuable a productive pass-rusher on a rookie deal can be to a pro team.
The Bills don't have any of those, by the way. They have poured a lot of money into this position, even beyond the two starters, but a pipeline of young talent does not exist. It would be nice to see that change, in the form of a 2015 NFL Draft pick.
Is there an instant contributor?
Potentially, but only in a rotational role, and only if they prove more useful than veterans Manny Lawson (whose versatility and early-down utility are valuable) and Jarius Wynn (who can also slide inside to tackle, and is theoretically a good veteran backup to Williams at end). Even in a draft class that is, according to most in the business, relatively flush with good edge defender prospects, usurping two known commodities behind two of the highest-paid rushers in the business is no easy feat.
But then, Lawson will be 31 in July, Wynn is merely backup-caliber, and neither veteran reserve offers much in the way of pass-rushing prowess. That underscores the Bills' need for a wave player that can legitimately threaten the edge, and any rookie that can contribute there might not have much trouble earning a significant role, after all. Highly paid though they are, Williams and Hughes can't play every snap.
Where does a project fit in?
Any rookie not ready for prime time would still have a leg up on the team's current stable of reserve linebackers that have experience playing the edge - with the exception of Ty Powell, an inside-outside 'tweener who has excellent job security because of his ability on special teams.
Bryan Johnson, a 2014 undrafted free agent most famous for a training camp brawl with Eric Wood, and Randell Johnson, a 2014 seventh-round pick that is highly athletic, but spent most of his rookie season inactive, are the other names to keep in mind. (Bryan Johnson is purely an edge defender, but Randell Johnson is athletic enough to receive a look either inside or outside.) Any rookie drafted in the early or middle rounds likely would not waste much time pushing past this crew as the lead candidate for game reps.
Is it a need in 2015? 2016?
This is a positional need, but it might be fair to call it a down-the-line need, because the Bills can get by in 2015 with their current group of edge defenders. There is plenty of versatility in skill between the four veteran players, and Powell and Johnson have a shot at being highly useful reserves. But eventually, the Bills are going to need to start a developmental pipeline of pass-rushing talent, rather than re-stocking with highly-paid veterans, and it would not be the worst idea for them to begin that process this weekend. As the saying goes, a pro football team can never have enough quality pass rushers.