As the Buffalo Bills head into the offseason, they could shed some significant cap space and upgrade at several positions. In our next look at positions where the Bills could release their 2017 starter, we look at defensive end Jerry Hughes.
(by Jeff Kantrowski aka Skarecrow)
Part of the declining stats are the result of McDermott’s emphasis on rotation. Compared to 2016, Jerry Hughes played 121 fewer snaps this season (856 to 725) and shouldn’t have been expected to tally the same number of sacks or tackles. Despite the reduction in time, his 28 tackles were within striking distance from his all-time best of 36 in a season.
On rushes and short passes toward Hughes’ side of the field, Buffalo has respectable rankings in defensive metrics, falling cleanly in the top half of the league in yards gained and completion percentage in the case of passes. Away from Hughes, the team fared demonstrably worse.
A tremendous amount of evidence suggests that Hughes’ “decline” is mostly a mirage. In 2017, Buffalo’s defensive line was less than stellar in collapsing the pocket. Without consistent threats elsewhere, teams keyed in on Hughes. Play-by-play review shows a player with plenty of power, speed, and a fair share of technique to go with a high motor. If the Bills rebuild the front 7, Hughes will look like a bargain.
Salary cap ramifications
If the Bills were to cut ties with Hughes, the team would save a total of $4.6 million. If the Bills were to designate him as a post-June 1 release, that cap savings increases to $7.5 million for the 2018 season (but spreads the cap hit down the line).
If the Bills were to release Hughes before his $1 million roster bonus comes due on the fifth day of the league year, their cap space moves to $36.2 million at a minimum.
2018 cap hit: $10.4 million
Roster bonus due: $1 million
Salary due: $6.35 million
Dead money: $5.8 million
Cap savings: $4.6 million ($7.5 million post-June 1)
In-house replacement options
Before he was placed on the season-ending injured reserve list, Shaq Lawson was having the best season of his brief NFL career. He was leading the team with four sacks in 11 games. At age 23, Lawson is hopefully starting to realize the vast potential he had as a first-round pick out of Clemson. (He’s also probably expected to hold down the other side on the defensive line and can’t replace Hughes in that circumstance.)
Eddie Yarbrough was a preseason sensation for the Bills, but managed only one sack with 34 total tackles while appearing in 16 games (six starts). He did record his first regular-season sack with the Bills when he brought down Cam Newton during a Week 2 loss at Carolina.
Ryan Davis appeared in all 16 games along the defensive line, recording three sacks (tied for third-most on the team) to go with 26 tackles (17 solo) and one forced fumble. Davis emerged as a valuable rotational member of the defensive line once Marcell Dareus was traded to the Jacksonville Jaguars, posting sacks in consecutive weeks against the Colts and Miami Dolphins.
Veteran replacement options
DeMarcus Lawrence, Ezekiel Ansah, Adrian Clayborn: the Bills would absolutely have to break the bank for them, and with all of their other needs, it’s highly unlikely that they would. Lawrence is coming off a 14.5-sack year at only 25 years old. While Ansah has had trouble staying healthy, he is a sound pass rusher who is also coming off a double-digit sack campaign. Clayborn may be a bit more realistic, but he’ll be 30 and six of his 9.5 sacks came in one game, so he only had 3.5 for the rest of the season.
Shelby Harris and Matt Longacre are restricted free agent options. Harris totaled six sacks while playing 52% of the team’s snaps. At 6’2” and 288 pounds, he would add some much-needed beef to the Bills’ defensive line. He is young enough (he turns 27 in August) where he could just be entering his prime. Longacre was third on the team in sacks this season with 5.5, and he achieved that while only playing on 35% of their defensive snaps. Yes, he was a 3-4 outside linebacker in defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’s scheme, but he is 6’3” and 260 pounds, and he also played defensive end in college at Northwest Missouri State. RFA Dion Jordan appeared in 5 games this season with the Seattle Seahawks, and he managed 4 sacks in that short time but Buffalo won’t give up a first round pick if Seattle tenders him.
Kony Ealy, the former second-round pick of the Carolina Panthers, is familiar with head coach Sean McDermott, and general manager Brandon Beane was part of the Panthers’ front office when they selected Ealy 60th overall in 2014. He played this season with the New York Jets, and while his numbers were underwhelming, maybe the Bills could take a flier on him with the hopes that he could reach his full potential. At only 26 years old, he probably won’t command a large contract, and he would be a welcome add to the group.
Julius Peppers is 37, but played in 50% of the Panthers’ snaps this season and he had 11.5 sacks. He’s only had fewer than 7 sacks once in his illustrious career, and if he’s willing to move on from Carolina, Buffalo should be willing to bring him into the fold.
2018 NFL Draft options
Bradley Chubb and Arden Key are athletic specimens that offer the versatility to line up in a three-point or two-point stance. Harold Landry is the quintessential speedy edge-bender; able to quickly burst off the line, get low, and tackle the quarterback in less than 2.5 seconds. While these three will likely cost a first round pick, they would be able to start immediately and provide the Bills with a long-term foundational piece for the defense.
The second tier is made up of prospects that aren’t ready to be the top pass rushers on the team, but should be able to contribute their rookie year. Some are athletic specimens that are going to test off the charts (Josh Sweat, Marcus Davenport). Others are pro-ready technicians that can get to the quarterback with more than just speed or strength (Sam Hubbard, Dorance Armstrong). Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Duke Ejiofor are alto in this tier. There’s a chance that a couple of them make it into the first round, but it’s more likely they are chosen on the second day of the draft.
Chad Thomas, Hercules Mata’afa, Tyquan Lewis, Kentavius Street, and Travon Hill, all come with some sort of flaw. Regardless, they have a history of production and can likely be had on the third day of the draft and wonuldn’t be clear-cut opening day starters but could be part of a rotation.
With all the information now at your disposal, it’s time to make up your mind. You’re the brain trust at One Bills Drive. Which option is the best call? Discuss in the comments section, too.
What should the Bills do with Jerry Hughes this offseason?
This poll is closed
Give him an extension. We want him around for more than two years.
Cut him, replace with a veteran.
Cut him, spend a first rounder to replace him.
Cut him, spend a 2nd or 3rd round pick on his rotational replacement.