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Buffalo Bills 2016 X-Factors: Jerry Hughes

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The best Bills player who’s discussed the least is Jerry Hughes, which, on the surface, is why he’s the club’s most vital x-factor for the 2016 season.

The soon-to-be 28 year old will be one of the defensive centerpieces for Rex Ryan’s defense, entrusted with the distinction of primary edge-rusher on the overwhelming majority of his snaps.

We often hear about Ryan’s defense being a “hybrid,” not exactly a 3-4 nor a 4-3. That’s true. Remember, also, that the NFL is in “nickel” — an extra cornerback — about 65% of time now anyway.

But at its core, Ryan’s scheme gives most of its players typical 3-4 responsibilities, and outside linebackers are the obvious play-makers in that front.

Over at BuildingTheHerd.com, Rob Quinn did a fantastic job comprehensively breaking down different alignments in Ryan’s varied scheme. It’s recommended reading. For the purpose of this piece on Hughes, I’ll highlight Quinn’s section on the roles of the edge-defenders.

The “rush end” will typically play to the weak side of the offensive formation, typically on the right side where he’ll face the left tackle. Terrell Suggs and Calvin Pace thrived at this spot under Ryan and this is currently Jerry Hughes’ role with the Bills.

The “SAM” or strong side outside linebacker will primarily play on the left side, aligning outside the shoulder of the tight end. This player will typically be a bit bigger than the rush end, as he’ll see more double teams when rushing the passer and he needs to be strong enough to set the edge and force runs back inside. He’ll also have more coverage responsibilities than his counterpart. Adalius Thomas and Bryan Thomas were playmakers at this spot with the Ravens and Jets, with Manny Lawson now playing the position with the Bills.

That’s spot-on analysis, and it provides a clear picture as to why Hughes is absolutely critical to Buffalo erasing its pass-rushing woes from last year.

If you check back to 2015 film of Buffalo’s defense, you’ll notice Hughes predominantly lined up pretty darn close to his “Wide 9” spot well outside the left tackle, in a two-point stance, ready to attack the quarterback.

Philosophically, Ryan depends much more on his scheme to create pressure than Jim Schwartz does, but all defenses (and offenses) need great players to be successful.

Hughes has had the grown-man duty of facing the opposition’s left tackle for three seasons with the Bills, and he’s perfectly suited to play “rush end” in Ryan’s scheme at 6’2” and 255 pounds with dynamic burst off the line, surprising strength and impressive edge-bending capability. He can cover too.

While the “Cold Front” label ultimately flopped a year ago, just because the Bills don’t have four, established household names on the defensive line anymore doesn’t mean their front is suddenly barren.

Heck, a good portion of the NFL would love a defensive line consisting of the in-their-prime duo of Marcell Dareus and Hughes.

After back-to-back seasons with 10 quarterback takedowns, the former TCU star amassed just five sacks in 2015. His production dip was a fitting microcosm of the Bills’ issues getting to the quarterback.

But Hughes often flashed his awesome array of pass-rushing moves, which led to 59 total pressures -- sacks, hits, and hurries — the eighth-most among all defensive ends, per Pro Football Focus.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Despite his consistency pressuring the quarterback and sturdiness setting the edge against the run — largely due to his lower center of gravity, power and hustle — Hughes was hit with too many penalties last season... 14 to be exact. Saints cornerback Brandon Browner (21) was the only defender penalized more, according to NFLPenalties.com.

Some of those flags were offsides calls, which are bound to happen occasionally with speed rushers, but the two unnecessary roughness flags, two unsportsmanlike conducts, and one personal foul simply cannot happen.

If Hughes can be more disciplined and keep his cool more frequently, the lone glaring negative of his game will be washed away.

We’ve seen him victimize the likes of Joe Thomas, Nate Solder, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, and Eric Fisher in the past. He can win with sheer speed, a bull rush, a low dip, an inside crossover and spin move, which is why he’s been such a productive pass-rusher in the past.

At his age, with his skills, in his role, Hughes is primed to be a double-digit sack machine once again in the Bills defense this season. Though he’s not talked about often, he’s truly one of Buffalo’s defensive foundations and the team’s most significant x-factor on that side of the football.