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State of the Buffalo Bills roster, defensive ends: upgrade will have to wait

Buffalo re-signed a big asset, but didn’t upgrade this offseason.

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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 to extension this offseason; $12.96 million million cap hit ($23.65 million dead cap if cut)
Age: 30 (31 on 8/13/19)
2018 playing time: 16 games (16 starts), 668 (65.88% of defensive total), 15 ST snaps (3.42%)
Key 2018 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 signed a large but short contract extension this offseason and has shown no signs of slowing down. He’ll be Buffalo’s top pass rusher this year.

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)
2018 playing time: 13 games (10 starts), 440 snaps (43.39% of defensive total), 48 ST snaps (10.93%)
Key 2018 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 preseason, 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. If he’s finally healthy following the ACL and subsequent injuries, maybe Buffalo can have a two- or three-headed pass rush again in 2019.

Shaq Lawson

Contract status for 2019: Signed; $3,270,586 million cap hit (fully-guaranteed as per CBA)
Age: Turned 25 on 6/17/19
2018 playing time: 14 games (6 starts), 440 snaps (43.39% of defensive total), 14 ST snaps (3.19%)
Key 2018 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 he will be on the roster past 2019. He’s a free agent at the end of the year.

Eddie Yarbrough

Contract status for 2019: Signed ERFA tender; $645,000 cap hit
Age: Turned 26 on 4/24/19
2018 playing time: 15 games (0 starts), 307 snaps (30.28% of defensive total), 78 ST snaps (17.77%)
Key 2018 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. He fell out of favor a little bit as the season wore on in favor of the next guy on the list. Yarbrough is at the very worst a high-quality camp body, and at best a capable stand-in for the regular season, but training camp will be important for him.

Mike Love

Contract status for 2019: Signed; $570,000 cap hit ($0 guaranteed)
Age: Turned 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 moves in preseason play, compiling 7 total tackles, but he has yet to register a sack in limited NFL action. He snuck in a few reps in place of Yarbrough in those final two games and could sneak on the roster ahead of Yarbrough with a good camp.

Eli Harold

Contract status for 2019: Signed this offseason; $735,000 cap hit ($90k dead cap if cut)
Age: Turned 25 on 1/20/19
2018 playing time: 13 games (0 starts), 184 snaps (18.54% of defensive snaps), 104 snaps (24.02% of special teams snaps) for Detroit Lions
Key 2018 statistics: 4 sacks, 10 tackles for the Detroit Lions

An experienced pass rusher, Harold has nine sacks over the last three seasons. He’s not a player to be overlooked in the competition, but he’s making the transition from 3-4 OLB to 4-3 DE, so it’s a bit of a different skillset.

Darryl Johnson

Contract status for 2019: Signed a four-year, $2.6 million rookie contract; $519,522 cap hit ($98k dead cap)
Age: Turned 22 on 4/4/19
2018 playing time: 12 games for North Carolina A&T
Key 2018 statistics: 55 total tackles, 19 tackles for a loss, and 10.5 sacks for North Carolina A&T

A long prospect, Johnson really needs a year in an NFL nutrition program before he can do some damage. He’s likely headed to the practice squad if he can show enough promise during training camp and the preseason.

Positional Outlook

The Bills have a very good starter in Hughes, passable second and third DEs opposite him in Murphy and Lawson, and a couple good prospects for the fourth and maybe fifth spot. Plus, if they place Johnson on the practice squad, they could have a developmental prospect in the pipeline, as well. They’ll have to replace Lawson at minimum a year from now, and maybe Murphy, all with an eye toward eventually replacing the aging Hughes, but that’s 2020’s problem now. This season appears to be locked in.