Among the Buffalo Bills’ biggest team needs, an additional pass-rush specialist is something commonly thought to be near the top of the list. While most would agree that providing another wide receiver is the biggest need, adding to a defense that notched 44 sacks, good for 12th in the league, is also a big need.
Defensive ends are typically the players who have the most sacks, but for Buffalo, their ends only combined for 17 of those sacks, with Shaq Lawson tops among them with 6.5 sacks. Lawson, of course, is scheduled to become a free agent this offseason, and while he has been a solid edge player, he isn’t an “elite” player at defensive end.
If the Bills want to add a truly elite defensive end, they’ll have the opportunity to do so this offseason via the free-agent market. However, they’ll need to be ready to spend some serious cash if that’s the route they want to take in replacing Shaq Lawson.
Below are some free-agent options worth considering for the Bills. Some players were excluded based on scheme fit (Arik Armstead, for example, who plays a 3-4 defensive end) or contract status (Everson Griffen, whose $14.5 million club option with the Minnesota Vikings could prevent him from hitting the open market).
Here’s the big fish in the pond. Ngakoue is an elite player who has been successful for the duration of his rookie contract. The Jacksonville Jaguars originally drafted him in Round 3 of the 2016 NFL Draft. Since then, he’s played in 63 of a possible 64 regular-season games, notching 37.5 sacks, 42 tackles for loss, and 85 quarterback hits in his career. He knocked six passes down at the line of scrimmage this year, and he even returned an interception for a touchdown. He’s forced 14 fumbles, as well, adding to a phenomenal resume that’s sure to lead to a huge contract. If Buffalo wants Ngakoue to join the squad, they’ll need to be prepared to offer at least $90 million, perhaps even more, over a five- or six-year contract.
Another elite option, Clowney would become the second former No. 1 overall pick of the Houston Texans to sign with the club as a free agent if he were to join the Bills this spring. The first time it happened was when Mario Williams, the first pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, signed in Buffalo. That went quite well, as Williams was a First-Team All Pro in 2014, and he totaled 43 sacks with the club in four years. As with any marriage that comes to an end, the divorce was ugly, but that shouldn’t have any bearing on whether the Bills pursue Clowney or not. The first overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft has been hampered by injuries throughout his NFL career, as he’s only managed to play a full 16-game slate once in six seasons. He’s been less productive overall than Ngakoue, but he’ll probably command a similar salary thanks to his freakish athleticism and overall pedigree.
Don’t want to commit to a $100 million contract? Still looking for an elite talent who’s only 30 years old? Quinn is the man for you! The nine-year veteran had a resurgent season playing for the Dallas Cowboys this year, notching 11.5 sacks for his highest total since the 2014 season with the St. Louis Rams. If Quinn could replicate his “average” 16-game season (37 tackles, 10 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, 19 quarterback hits), it would be well worth a three-year deal in the $10-million-per-year range for his services.
Quietly, the man known as JPP had two solid years as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After losing part of his hand in a well-publicized fireworks incident, Pierre-Paul has remained a strong pass rusher. Last year, he had 8.5 sacks, nine tackles for loss, and 16 quarterback hits, all while playing just over half (51.9%) of Tampa’s defensive snaps. While he’s never been a great run defender, if it’s pass rush you’re looking for, he’s always been elite in that category. Pierre-Paul remains a solid veteran who could be had at a reasonable rate if the Bills are looking for a more cost-effective upgrade.
A common theme among NFL coaching staffs is trying to find players who have high-end pedigrees without production to match. Often, coaches want to see if they can be the one to unlock potential in a once-hyped football player. In the case of Beasley, who was taken by the Atlanta Falcons in Round 1 of the 2015 NFL Draft, inconsistency has plagued him for his whole career. Aside from his second year, where he totaled 15.5 sacks, Beasley’s production has been incredibly pedestrian. He has only 22 sacks in his four other NFL seasons combined. Perhaps a change of scenery would do him good, and playing in a heavy rotation with Jerry Hughes, Trent Murphy, and either Mike Love or Darryl Johnson Jr. could do wonders for the former first-round pick. If this article from our friends at The Falcoholic (which is absolutely my favorite name of any SB Nation blog, for the record) is indicative of the feelings of Falcons’ management, then Beasley is not going to return to Atlanta.
Another savvy veteran, Bennett has remained very productive even into his 30s. Splitting his time between the Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots, Bennett notched 6.5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss, and 15 quarterback hits last season. If it’s short-term improvement that the team wants while its young pass rushers develop, they could do a lot worse than a player with 69.5 career sacks.
Just like with Jordan Phillips, it’s entirely possible that the best replacement for free-agent defensive end Shaq Lawson will be...free-agent defensive end Shaq Lawson. Just like with Phillips, Lawson is a darn good player who will face some stiff competition for big contract dollars from other players with flashier statistics. He is only 25 years old, and he’s coming off his best NFL season, a year in which he had 6.5 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, and 18 quarterback hits while playing just under half (46.6%) of Buffalo’s defensive snaps. If our contract prediction turns out to be accurate, then the most cost-effective thing to do very well may be to retain the player we already know fits well in the defense.
Which player should the Bills sign in free agency to replace Shaq Lawson?
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Shaq Lawson himself
Other; specify in comments
- All-22 Analysis: Shaq Lawson’s 2019 season shows solid play and room for improvement
- Contract projection for Shaq Lawson entering free agency
- In-house replacement options for Shaq Lawson are very green
- Elite-level defensive ends hitting the market could upgrade Bills pass rush
- 2020 NFL Draft has tiers of pass rushers
- Opinion: Why I would re-sign Shaq Lawson