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Buffalo Bills pass rush likely to be re-tooled behind Jerry Hughes

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Remember a year ago, when the Bills had the NFL's best pass rush? It feels like way more than a year ago today, as the Bills venture into the offseason with serious work to do to upgrade the former strength of their team.

Sacks are not the be-all, end-all statistical measure for how well a team rushes the passer, but they can do serve as an indication of the general well-being of a team's pass rush. The Buffalo Bills were terrible rushing the passer in 2015, and anyone could suss that out because of their sack total.

After two glorious years in which the Bills accumulated 111 sacks, finishing second in the category in 2013 and first overall in 2014, the Bills were only able to muster 21 sacks in the 2015 season, Rex Ryan's first running the defense. It was the lowest sack total in franchise history - unless you want to count the 1982 season, which was the first year the sack was kept as an official stat, and which was also shortened to nine games by a players' strike. The Bills had 12 sacks in nine games in 1982.

Buffalo badly needs to fix its pass rush, as harassing opposing quarterbacks is the best way to mask personnel warts on defense. When the Bills rushed the passer excessively well in 2013 and 2014, those warts weren't obvious. When the pass rush dwindled last season, the warts were exposed. The fastest way to improve on defense for the Bills is, bar none, to rush the passer far more efficiently.

That process starts at the defensive end position, which is the subject of this article, our second in the just-resumed State of the Bills Roster series. Because of the flexibility of Ryan's preferred defensive scheme, we're going to break the Bills' defensive ends up into two groups: "base ends," or the bigger dudes who are down linemen that can rush off the edge, and "rush ends," the lighter, more athletic guys that are more capable of dropping into coverage or hitting the flats on pressure calls.

Let's do this. Also, of note: all of the financial data in this article is calculated from data supplied by Spotrac.com.

Base ends

Mario Williams

  • Age: 30 (31 on 1/31/16)
  • 2015 earnings: $15.2M
  • 2016 cap charge: $19.9M ($12.9M savings if cut)
  • Playing time: 887 snaps in 15 games active (81.3% of total)
  • Stats: 19 tackles (15 solo), 5.0 sacks

No one epitomized the Bills' fall from grace as a pass-rushing unit better than Williams, who was a first team All-Pro in 2014. He remained a good run defender in 2015, though the statistical output won't show it. As a pass rusher, however, Williams left a great deal to be desired. Whether you blame that on the player, the scheme, the coaches, or anything else you can come up with is up to the reader. No matter which way you slice it, things didn't work at all, really, in 2015.

The Bills are faced with this choice: keep Williams and try to warp the defense around the things he wants to do while committing $19.9 million in cap space to the 31-year-old, or cut him, shave $12.9 million off of that salary cap commitment, and replace him with a fresh face or two. At this juncture, the overwhelming majority of Bills followers expect the latter to happen, which was rather unfathomable this time a year ago.

Jarius Wynn

  • Age: 29 (30 on 8/29/16)
  • 2015 earnings: $950K
  • 2016 cap charge: $1.125M ($1M savings if cut)
  • Playing time: Spent 205 season on IR (ACL tear)

The Bills re-signed Wynn to a two-year deal last offseason after he established himself as a solid wave player in 2014. Unfortunately, he tore his ACL during a preseason game last summer, and was lost for the season. The 285-pound veteran is still under contract for one more year, and has experience playing both tackle and end. That could help his cause for a roster spot, but only as a reserve.

Lavar Edwards
  • Age: 25 (26 on 4/29/16)
  • 2015 earnings: $172K
  • 2016 cap charge: $675K ($675K savings if cut)
  • Playing time: 0 snaps in 0 games active
Cedric Reed
  • Age: 23 (24 on 10/9/16)
  • 2015 earnings: N/A
  • 2016 cap charge: $450K ($450K savings if cut)
  • Playing time: Spent 2015 season on practice squad

The Bills started collecting young edge rushers for Ryan's defense as far back as last year's draft, and these two names will be around for training camp next summer as a result. Both could be looked at as guys that can play in space, but they're a bit bigger than some of the other players (Edwards is listed at 275 pounds, and Reed at 269), so we're including them as base ends.

Rush end

Jerry Hughes

  • Age: 27 (28 on 8/13/16)
  • 2015 earnings: $11.78M
  • 2016 cap charge: $7.58M ($4.03M added to cap if cut)
  • Playing time: 1,008 snaps in 16 games active (92.4% of total)
  • Stats: 52 tackles (37 solo), 5.0 sacks, 2 FF, 1 FR

Buffalo's best pass rusher by a country mile wears No. 55 and annoys a lot of fans because he picks up a lot of dumb penalties. Forget about the flags for a minute, though, and focus on the player: Hughes didn't have a great year in 2015, but he's clearly a good fit for the defense that the Bills want to play, and provided more impact as a run defender than at any other point in his career.

When you're a team's best pass rusher, you've improved against the run, and you're athletic enough to handle intermittent coverage responsibilities in a defense hell-bent on confusing quarterbacks, you are worth your weight in gold - cash and hankies alike. Hughes enters the 2016 season as the primary figure in the Bills' pass rushing complement. He's a good football player. But he could also use some help.

IK Enemkpali

  • Age: 24 (25 on 7/3/16)
  • 2015 earnings: $390K
  • 2016 cap charge: $600K ($600K savings if cut)
  • Playing time: 146 snaps in 11 games active (13.4% of total)
  • Stats: 13 tackles (9 solo)

After serving a four-game suspension for the jaw punching incident that allowed him to be a Bill in the first place, Enemkpali worked into the rotation as a situational edge player for the final 11 games of the season. He rarely made an impact as a pass rusher and was a liability when asked to drop into coverage. The Bills can probably do a bit better with their edge defender depth, though Enemkpali will almost certainly be back competing for a roster spot next summer.

Max Valles
  • Age: 21 (22 on 8/5/16)
  • 2015 earnings: $77K
  • 2016 cap charge: $525K ($525K savings if cut)
  • Playing time: 0 snaps in 0 games active

A sixth-round pick out of Virginia in 2015 (Oakland picked him), the Bills snagged Valles near the end of the regular season and stashed him for next year. The long, angular athlete needs coaching, but as the youngest player currently on Buffalo's roster, he ranks as one of the more intriguing project players on the team.

Offseason outlook

Subtract Williams from this picture, since that is the likely outcome this offseason, and you're left with Hughes, some fringe-depth veterans, and some fringe prospects. It's not a pretty picture. Hughes will be a key member of Buffalo's defense moving forward, but the same can't be said of anyone else discussed here. That's why fortifying the pass rush has to be one of the Bills' biggest goals this spring.