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Intriguing free agent pass rush options for the Buffalo Bills if they replace Jerry Hughes

With or without Jerry Hughes, the team would be wise to consider adding another edge rusher

The Buffalo Bills had a big problem rushing the passer during the 2017 NFL season. They only managed 27 sacks, “good” for 29th in the league. With Jerry Hughes set to count $10.4 million against the salary cap next season, one would expect more production than his 4 sacks this season.

If they do decide that Hughes isn’t worth the price tag, the Bills will have plenty of options to consider in the free agent market.

DeMarcus Lawrence, Ezekiel Ansah, Adrian Clayborn

I’m linking these three together because 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. If Calais Campbell commanded a 4-year, $60 million contract heading into his age-31 season when he had never totaled more than 9 sacks in a season, I can’t imagine what Lawrence, coming off a 14.5-sack year at only 25 years old, will make next year. 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 heading into his age-30 season, he’s coming off a 9.5-sack campaign that is very deceiving. Six of those sacks came in one game, so he only had 3.5 for the rest of the season.

Shelby Harris

The third-year man played his 2017 season for the Denver Broncos, and he 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, but there is a catch—as a restricted free agent, Denver has the opportunity to tag him and match any offer sheet he signs. If the Bills were to sign him, the would most likely need to forfeit a draft pick, as I doubt he would go untendered by Denver. He was originally drafted in the seventh round by the Oakland Raiders, and Buffalo is without a 7th-round pick this season. The Bills would then forfeit the next-highest draft choice that they possess, which is in round five, if Harris were to be given an original-round tender. (It makes more sense for the Broncos to tag him at the second round tender level anyway.)

Matt Longacre

The Los Angeles Rams linebacker 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. A back injury ended his season after 14 weeks, but if he is deemed healthy in the offseason, he is worth a look. 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. He entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent, and he is also a restricted free agent this season. As a result, if the Rams were to tender him at the original round level, the Bills could sign him without any compensation heading to Los Angeles, a la Chris Hogan with the New England Patriots.

Dion Jordan

Rounding out the restricted free agent grouping is Jordan, the former bust at number three overall looking to make a comeback into the NFL. He appeared in 5 games this season with the Seattle Seahawks, and he managed 4 sacks in that short time. If the Seahawks choose not to tender him, then he is worth a look; however, if he’s given an original-round tender, Buffalo won’t want to lose a first-round draft pick for 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

Hear me out. I know he’s 37 years old. What I didn’t know is that he 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. He made $3.5 million with the Panthers last year, and Buffalo could definitely afford a contract at or slightly above that level.

For the record, I don’t think that the Bills should release Jerry Hughes. I do think they would be wise to add a pass-rusher or two to the roster to help him out, however. Peppers would be my top option for next season only, but Longacre and Harris could be sneaky-good additions for 2018 and beyond. I expect that those two will be tendered, but if they only receive original-round tenders, then Buffalo would be wise to try to add the two up-and-coming edge players.

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