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State of the Buffalo Bills roster, defensive ends: alright for now

The Bills don’t need to make moves here...but will they?

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The Buffalo Bills improved their pass rush in 2018, even though they still ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in the category. In 2017, the Bills had only 27 sacks, which tied them with the New York Giants for the third-lowest total in the league. This season, that total increased to 36 sacks overall, which moved them from 30th to 26th overall.

Why, then, would we suggest that the team is alright for now at the position? A pass rush is not all about sacks, as Buffalo’s top defensive end showed during the season. Disrupting the quarterback by pressuring him, hitting him, and rushing his thought process all helps to improve a pass defense. The Bills were able to do all of those things thanks to an improved front-four, and they were able to scheme some more sacks as the year progressed thanks to the overall strength of their front seven.

In our latest look at the state of the Bills roster, we check out the defensive ends, a group filled with solid veterans and young, high-motor players—and one which is among the better positional groups on the current roster.

Jerry Hughes

Contract status for 2019: Signed; $10.4 million cap hit ($2.9 million dead cap if cut)
Age: 30 (31 on 8/13/19)
Playing time: 16 games (16 starts), 668 (65.88% of defensive total), 15 ST snaps (3.42%)
Key statistics: 37 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 18 QB hits, 7 sacks, 1 pass defended, 3 forced fumbles

While Hughes did not finish with an eye-popping number of sacks on the year, he was a terror on the edge, ranking as the eighth-best edge defender in 2018 per Pro Football Focus. He was a nuisance for opposing offensive coordinators all year, and teams had to scheme against him constantly as a result. In games where teams failed to account for him adequately, he took the game over (see the Bills’ victory against the Minnesota Vikings, in which Hughes had a forced fumble, two quarterback hits, and a sack that resulted in plus-field position for Buffalo). Hughes is slated to be the highest-paid player on the Bills next season, and while the team could save nearly $8 million by cutting him, doing so would be an idiotic decision. Hughes is still a fantastic pass rusher, and he has improved his run defense greatly. The Bills may want to begin negotiating a contract extension for him sooner rather than later if they’d like to keep him beyond 2019, as this is the final season of the five-year, $40 million pact his signed in 2015.

Trent Murphy

Contract status for 2019: Signed; $8,481,250 million cap hit ($3.5 million dead cap if cut)
Age: 28 (29 on 12/22/19)
Playing time: 13 games (10 starts), 440 snaps (43.39% of defensive total), 48 ST snaps (10.93%)
Key statistics: 24 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 9 QB hits, 4 sacks, 1 pass defended, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovered

Murphy was able to contribute in his first NFL season since the 2016 campaign. Coming off an ACL tear suffered in the 2017 pre-season, he appeared to be a bit rusty, but he settled in nicely and was a solid contributor for the defense throughout the year. As has been the case throughout Murphy’s career, he dealt with nagging injuries at times, working through issues with his groin, ankle, and knee at varying points in 2018. Murphy is currently slated to be the fifth-highest paid player on the roster when sorting by cap hit in 2019, so there is a possibility the team decides to move on rather than pay him. However, good pass-rush help is hard to find, and the Bills would certainly need to spend more than the $8 million-plus that Murphy is owed in order to find that help, plus they’d still be on the hook for $3.5 million for cutting Murphy. It’s likely that he remains with the team in 2019.

Shaq Lawson

Contract status for 2019: Signed; $3,270,586 million cap hit (fully-guaranteed as per CBA)
Age: 24 (25 on 6/17/19)
Playing time: 14 games (6 starts), 440 snaps (43.39% of defensive total), 14 ST snaps (3.19%)
Key statistics: 30 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 12 QB hits, 4 sacks, 5 passes defended, 2 forced fumbles

Yes, you read that correctly—Lawson and Murphy were in an exact even split this season at left defensive end. While that was partly due to injuries, it was also due in part to Lawson’s overall improvement as a football player. After struggling for the better part of his first two seasons, Lawson recommitted himself to improving in the offseason, and while many stories like that are merely puff pieces to fill the dry months between football games, Lawson’s hard work paid off on the field. He led the defensive line in balls batted down at the line of scrimmage, and he was a disruptive force in the defensive backfield. The big decision for Buffalo isn’t whether Lawson will be on the 2019 roster or not—his place is a given—it’s whether they will decide to exercise his fifth-year option on his rookie contract. Since Lawson was selected 19th overall in the 2016 NFL Draft, the formula to compute his fifth-year option salary is to average the 3rd-25th highest salaries at his position. The Bills have until May 3 to decide whether or not to exercise that option. The range of player salaries averaged will go from $15 million (J.J. Watt) to $7,768,475 (Solomon Thomas). That seems steep for a player of Lawson’s ability level.

Eddie Yarbrough

Contract status for 2019: Unsigned; ERFA
Age: 25 (26 on 4/24/19)
Playing time: 15 games (0 starts), 307 snaps (30.28% of defensive total), 78 ST snaps (17.77%)
Key statistics: 29 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 1 QB hit

Yarbrough is solid for what he is—a fourth defensive end in a rotation is never expected to be a star. His contract status allows the Bills to bring him back at little cost, and if they find a better option to fill in on the defensive line, they can release him with no dead cap money accrued. Exclusive-rights free agents have no choice but to sign if teams tender them contracts, so Buffalo will have the ultimate say on Yarbrough’s future. It would be foolish not to tender him a contract given that Yarbrough is at the very worst a high-quality camp body, and at best a capable stand-in for the regular season.

Mike Love

Contract status for 2019: Signed; $570,000 cap hit ($0 guaranteed)
Age: 24 (25 on 1/22/19)
Playing time: 3 games (0 starts), 48 snaps (4.73% of defensive total), 29 ST snaps (6.61%)
Key statistics: 5 tackles

Love made his debut with the Bills in December after having spent the first 14 weeks of the season on the team’s practice squad. An undrafted rookie out of USF, Love made some plays in pre-season play, compiling 7 total tackles, but he has yet to register a sack in limited NFL action. Love is worth keeping through the offseason, but his position on the roster is tenuous.

Positional Outlook

I think the Bills are set here. The rotation has all the needed pieces, and while it could certainly be better by adding a splash free-agent signing (DeMarcus Lawrence, anyone?), such an addition is not necessary given the other weaknesses on the roster. If Buffalo were to pursue someone like Lawrence, parting ways with Murphy would be the most effective way to add him; however, Lawrence will most likely command a contract in the area of the Mario Williams deal Buffalo made in 2013.

With issues at running back, wide receiver, tight end, offensive tackle, and guard—among others—Buffalo would be wise to keep a solid core group together. A decision on Lawson is looming, and there is a possibility that the team cuts ties with Murphy. The team can rest easy, however, knowing that they’re alright for now at defensive end. A look to the future would be in their best interests, as Hughes and Lawson are both unsigned after 2019.