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Do the Buffalo Bills have internal options to replace Jerry Hughes?

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The team shouldn’t move on from Hughes, but if they do, Shaq Lawson took a big step forward in 2018

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Veteran defensive end Jerry Hughes has been worth every penny of the five-year, $45-million contract ($22 million guaranteed) that he inked with the Buffalo Bills on March 9, 2015.

After recording 20 sacks during his first two seasons in Western New York, Hughes signed his contract extension. While his productivity in getting after the quarterback has dropped to 22 sacks over the last four years, much of that is due to the loss of Mario Williams, and also a by-product to the team shifting schemes several times.

Now in Leslie Frazier’s 4-3 defense, Hughes has established himself as the best edge rusher on the team, and he has made tremendous strides as a run defender, too. Committing costly penalties used to be a knock on Hughes, but he has gotten better at controlling his emotions on the field, which has led to a decline in personal-foul penalties. (He didn’t register a single of the personal-foul variety during the 2018 season—notching only one unsportsmanlike penalty.)

One of the emotional leaders on an up-and-coming Bills defense, Hughes carries a $10.4 million salary cap hit in 2019, the second-highest on the team behind only defensive tackle Star Lotulelei ($11.5 million).

Coming off a 2018 season where he logged seven sacks with 18 quarterback hits, 37 total tackles (13 tackles for a loss), and three forced fumbles, Hughes should continue to be a force for Buffalo’s defense. While his sack totals weren’t as great as his first two seasons with the team, Hughes absolutely dominated the opposition and ranked as the eighth-best edge defender in 2018 per Pro Football Focus.

But if the team decided to move on from Hughes in 2019, does Buffalo have any internal pieces that could replicate Hughes’ productivity at a lower cost?

The answer is yes, and the most logical replacement is another former first-round pick: Shaq Lawson. Lawson struggled to make an impact in Rex Ryan’s 3-4 scheme during his rookie season, and didn’t get much better in 2017—the first season with Sean McDermott as head coach and Frazier as defensive coordinator. But in 2018, Lawson turned a corner and showed why Buffalo selected him with the 19th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft out of Clemson.

After appearing in 14 games (six starts) and finishing with four sacks, 12 QB hits, 30 total tackles (five for a loss), five passes defended, and two forced fumbles, Pro Football Focus graded Lawson as the league’s 20th-best edge rusher. The 24-year-old Lawson carries a $3,270,586 million cap hit that is fully-guaranteed in 2019, but one season removed from an even timeshare with veteran defensive end Trent Murphy on the left side of the defensive line, Lawson should be in line for even more action this year. Lawson displayed the same athleticism that made him a standout at Clemson, leading the defensive line in balls batted down at the line of scrimmage, and when he wasn’t sacking the quarterback he was causing chaos in the opposing backfield.

When it comes to Lawson’s role with the Bills, the biggest issue isn’t whether he will have a place on Frazier’s defense in 2019—he has proven himself to be a valuable contributor—it’s what the Bills will do about the fifth-year option on Lawson’s rookie contract.

Among the rest of the defensive ends under contract for 2019, Murphy will look to improve upon his 2018 season, when he appeared in 13 games (ten starts) with four sacks, nine quarterback hits, 24 tackles (five for a loss), two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery. Murphy, who fought through injuries in 2018, should once again serve as a valuable pass rusher.

The Bills have invaluable depth at the defensive end position, with both Eddie Yarbrough (25) and Mike Love (24) serving as rotational pieces. Yarbrough, an exclusive-rights free agent, is coming off a 2018 season where he appeared in 15 games with 29 tackles (four for a loss) with one quarterback hit. Love, a standout at the University of South Florida, played in three games (five tackles) after spending the first 14 weeks on Buffalo’s practice squad.