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Buffalo Bills solid at defensive end heading into 2018 NFL offseason

While the sack production lacked, the team has an adequate core of players at the defensive end position

The Buffalo Bills finished 29th in the NFL in total sacks, notching only 27 on the season. That total is 12 fewer than 2016, and only 6 more than 2015, where the Bills finished 31st in total sacks. A lack of sacks would imply a failure from the team’s edge rushers to generate pressure, but sometimes the scheme dictates whether or not those players will have time to reach the quarterback.

With the Bills content to play coverage more often than not, the Bills relied heavily on four-man rushes, dropping seven players into coverage and forcing opposing quarterbacks to throw underneath routes. This put additional pressure on the defensive line to generate pressure, and they did not do so on a consistent basis.

Does this mean that the Bills will look to overhaul the position in the offseason? As we continue with our State of the Roster series, we examine the defensive ends, their production, and the possibilities for future additions or subtractions to the current group.

Jerry Hughes

  • Contract status for 2018: Signed; $10.4 million cap hit ($7.5 million cap savings if post-6/1 cut)
  • Age: 29 (30 on 8/13/18)
  • Playing time: 735 defensive snaps (66.34% of defensive snaps), 8 ST snaps (1.83%)
  • Key Statistics: 4 sacks, 44 combined tackles, 1 forced fumble

The elder statesman of Buffalo’s defensive end group had a solid season overall, even if his pass rush numbers were down. In addition to his 4 sacks, Hughes also led the Bills in tackles for loss, notching 12 on the season (good for 25th among all defensive players and 10th among defensive ends this season).

With a high cap number and a potential out for the Bills in 2018, there is an outside chance that the veteran is released; however, with the number of holes that need filling on the roster, it seems unintelligent to create another one just for the sake of saving salary cap dollars, especially when no viable replacement exists on the current roster.

Shaq Lawson

  • Contract Status for 2018: signed; $2.8 million cap hit (no cap savings by cutting him)
  • Age: 23 (24 on 6/17/18)
  • Playing time: 436 snaps (39.35% of defensive snaps), 39 ST snaps (8.92%)
  • Key statistics: 4 sacks, 32 combined tackles, 2 passes defensed, 1 fumble forced

The second-year man out of Clemson improved his production, as he took pretty naturally to Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier’s 4-3 scheme. Last year, Lawson was a bit of a fish out of water in the Ryan Brothers’ 3-4 base, but he played well in his time in 2017. He was placed on injured reserve after Buffalo’s first loss to the New England Patriots.

It’s likely that Lawson remains on the roster for 2018, but no player picked prior to the current regime’s arrival should feel safe. Lawson is a solid player who is a strong rotational piece at this point in his career. That isn’t exactly a glowing endorsement for a first-round draft pick, but he is certainly the kind of player who can help.

Ryan Davis

  • Contract status for 2018: signed; $1.275 million cap hit ($1.225 million cap savings if cut)
  • Age 28 (29 on 2/24/18)
  • Playing time: 457 snaps (41.25% of defensive snaps), 118 ST snaps (27%)
  • Key statistics: 3 sacks, 26 combined tackles, 1 fumble forced

The veteran signed with Buffalo in the 2017 offseason, and he played well in a reserve role. His size and versatility along the line allowed coaches to shift him inside on occasion, and his contributions on special teams put him among the team’s leaders in snaps there.

While his production was okay, it certainly was nothing out of the ordinary, and the Bills may look to move on from the veteran if they can draft a better pass rusher this April. Davis has a very manageable cap hit, and he also has little guaranteed money left on the two-year deal he signed last offseason. It’s probable that he remains with the team, but he is nowhere near a roster lock.

Nordly “Cap” Capi

  • Contract status for 2018: signed; $555,000 cap hit (no guaranteed money)
  • Age: 25 (26 on 7/11/18)
  • Playing time: 88 snaps (7.94% of defensive snaps), 19 ST snaps (4.35%)
  • Key statistics: 1 sack, 5 combined tackles, 1 fumble forced

Capi has the perfect name for New Era Field, and he played well for a late-season addition. He was added to the active roster after Lawson was placed on injured reserve. Though his time was limited, and he is a bit on the smaller side compared to Buffalo’s other defensive ends, he did not look out of place when he was on the field. The ability to play special teams also works in his favor.

He is another player whose hold on a roster spot is not certain. With youth and a low cap number on his side, it’s possible that the Bills will hang onto him while upgrading other positions. If the Bills can find someone better, however, they won’t hesitate to replace Capi.

Eddie Yarbrough

  • Contract status for 2018: unsigned; ERFA (Buffalo can tender him and he is unable to negotiate with other teams)
  • Age: 24 (25 on 4/24/18)
  • Playing time: 462 snaps (41.7% of defensive snaps), 16 ST snaps (3.66%)
  • Key statistics: 1 sack, 34 combined tackles, 2 passes defensed

The feel-good story of the preseason, Yarbrough made the 53-man roster out of training camp and provided the Bills with solid depth throughout the year. His high motor and good size helped in setting the edge, and he was around the quarterback often, even if he only managed one sack on the year.

As an exclusive-rights free agent, the Bills have the ability to tender him an offer if they so choose. After playing on nearly 42% of the team’s defensive snaps in 2017, I would be surprised if they don’t choose to retain Yarbrough’s services, due to his youth, his motor, and his potential for growth.

Offseason Outlook

Clearly, Buffalo needs to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. With the current coaching staff’s defensive philosophy in mind, much of that pressure will need to come from the front-four. The Bills’ defensive ends combined for 13 sacks this season, which does represent half the team’s total, but is still less than Chandler Jones, Calais Campbell, and DeMarcus Lawrence had individually.

The problem is the resources necessary to upgrade a position that is populated with solid, if unspectacular, players. With the number of holes on the roster in desperate need of upgrading, spending a ton of money on the defensive line seems like more of a luxury than a necessity. After all, there are other ways to generate pressure (stronger interior defensive lineman, more athletic pass-rushing linebackers, different pressure packages) that the team could concoct to make up for the apparent lack of overall pass-rush ability.

If the team decides to part ways with Jerry Hughes, it would be a bit of a surprise. He doesn’t have the sack numbers to match his hefty cap number, but he has contributed against the run with a great deal of consistency. The Bills only allowed one team (the New Orleans Saints) to average 4 yards per carry when rushing to Hughes’s side. Releasing him would add cap flexibility, but a great deal of that money would need to be spent replacing him.

The Bills may look to add another player to serve as a pass-rush specialist, but if they do, I’d expect that it’s through the draft and not free agency. With needs on the offensive line, quarterback, wide receiver, and linebacker far more pressing, it’s probable that the team will allocate those funds elsewhere in 2018.