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State of the Buffalo Bills’ roster: Defensive ends

Buffalo badly needs an injection of young talent here

Wild Card Round - Buffalo Bills v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills had 44 sacks as a team in 2019, good for 12th in the league. With most clubs, that means the defensive ends had a great year; however, with Buffalo, that doesn’t appear to be the case statistically. Their leader in sacks, Jordan Phillips, is a defensive tackle. Not one player on Buffalo’s defense reached ten sacks, as the whole was greater than the sum of its parts for Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier’s defense.

Could the Bills stand to add some talent on the defensive edge? They absolutely could. In our latest look at the state of the Buffalo Bills’ roster, we look at the defensive ends—a group that will probably look quite a bit different in 2020.

Jerry Hughes

Contract status for 2020: Signed; first year of two-year extension signed last offseason ($9.5 million cap hit; $10.85 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 31 (32 on 8/13/2020)
Playing time: 16 games (16 starts), 662 defensive snaps (63.9%), 8 ST snaps (1.9%)
Key statistics: 23 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 9 QB hits, 4.5 sacks, 3 pass breakups, 1 fumble recovery

The veteran on the line played through a wrist injury, and he didn’t miss a game for the eighth consecutive year. Statistically, this was Hughes’s worst year in Buffalo, as he continued a trend of low sack totals ever since signing his massive contract extension following the 2014 season. However, he was constantly dealing with double teams, and the success of the defense as a whole in harassing opposing quarterbacks can be partly attributed to the attention Hughes commands. After signing a two-year extension prior to last season, Hughes is all but guaranteed to be in Buffalo for 2020. If he doesn’t make a greater impact, however, this season may be his last in Buffalo.

Trent Murphy

Contract status for 2020: Signed; final year of three-year contract ($9.775 million cap hit; $1.75 million dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 29 (30 on 12/22/2020)
Playing time: 16 games (16 starts), 674 defensive snaps (65.1%), 64 ST snaps (15.5%)
Key statistics: 36 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 9 QB hits, 5 sacks, 3 pass breakups, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 interception

For most of the 2019 season, Trent Murphy was seen as the guy who took snaps away from Shaq Lawson, a more dynamic player. Really, through 15 games, Murphy’s year looked as pedestrian as could be—33 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and three sacks isn’t a great line for the defensive end who played more snaps than anyone else at the position. Then, in Buffalo’s regular-season finale and their Wild Card Playoff loss, Murphy played like his hair was on fire. He had two sacks in each game, totaling nine tackles, three tackles for loss, and four quarterback hits, as well. Whether that was a sign of good things to come or one last thing to remember him fondly by, Murphy certainly ended his 2019 season with a bang. At a nearly $10 million salary-cap hit, the Bills will probably think long and hard about whether Murphy fits in the team’s plans for next year.

Shaq Lawson

Contract status for 2020: Unsigned; unrestricted free agent
Age: 25 (26 on 6/17/2020)
Playing time: 15 games (0 starts), 483 defensive snaps (46.6%), 29 ST snaps (7%)
Key statistics: 32 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 18 QB hits, 6.5 sacks, 2 pass breakups, 1 forced fumble

The former first-round pick broke out in 2019, leading the Bills in quarterback hits and finishing second on the team in sacks, all while playing under half of the team’s defensive snaps. Always a solid edge-setter in the run game, Lawson finally developed into the pass rusher that former head coach Rex Ryan thought he’d be when the team picked him 19th overall in the 2016 NFL Draft. Buffalo declined Lawson’s fifth-year option prior to the start of the season, meaning he’ll be a free agent at age 25. Buffalo should try to keep him, but they should also be prepared for him to leave.

Darryl Johnson Jr.

Contract status for 2020: Signed; second year of rookie deal ($609,522 cap hit; $73,566 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 22 (23 on 4/4/2020)
Playing time: 16 games (0 starts), 225 defensive snaps (21.7%), 277 ST snaps (66.9%)
Key statistics: 11 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 2 QB hits, 1 sack

Johnson is a freakish athlete, and he showed it by playing as one of the scariest kick-coverage guys I’ve ever seen. At 6’6” and 253 lbs, I was consistently amazed watching him fly down the field on kickoffs. He actually played more snaps on special teams than anyone other than Siran Neal this year for Buffalo. Defensively, he has a long way to go if he wants to be a productive defensive end, as he often found himself out-worked on pass-rush reps and out-flanked in run-game reps. After averaging 20 defensive snaps per game through Week 8, Johnson only played on 24 defensive snaps combined over the next eight games. He’ll have a good chance at making the roster again next year thanks to his special-teams prowess, but he’ll need to make big strides in order to earn a larger role on defense.

Mike Love

Contract status for 2020: Signed; final year of rookie deal ($585,000 cap hit; $0 dead money if cut)
Age: 26 (27 on 1/22/2021)
Playing time: NA; spent year on injured reserve
Key statistics: NA

The former USF standout had a solid preseason, notching six tackles in three games and showing a knack for disruptive plays even if he didn’t make any sacks. An injured pectoral muscle caused Love to have surgery in September, and the Bills placed him on injured reserve immediately thereafter. He’ll need to have another strong camp, and perhaps an even better preseason, to make the team next year.

Jonathan Woodard

Contract status for 2020: Signed reserve/future deal on 1/7/2020 ($660,000 cap hit; $0 dead money if cut)
Age: 26 (27 on 9/19/2020)
Playing time: NA
Key statistics: NA

Woodard was placed on injured reserve by the Miami Dolphins last August thanks to an undisclosed injury. He was waived off injured reserve on Christmas Eve, and the Bills signed him to a reserve/future deal in January. At 6’5” and 271 lbs, Woodard is a larger edge than those the Bills currently employ. He appeared in ten games for the Dolphins in 2018, making ten tackles and a sack.

Positional Outlook

Buffalo badly needs an influx of talent here. Hughes is trending downward, Murphy has not lived up to his contract, there’s no guarantee that the team will re-sign Lawson, and the trio of Love, Johnson, and Woodard are all lottery tickets at this point in their career. Expect the Bills to pursue some free agents here, even if one of those free agents is Shaq Lawson. They could also look to add an edge rusher with their first pick in the draft. If a run on receivers takes the top names off the board, drafting someone like K’Lavon Chaisson, Yetur Gross-Matos, A.J. Epenesa, or any number of talented players later in the draft (Bradlee Anae) would make a great fit on Buffalo’s defense.

If the team can add a big-name free agent, I expect that they’ll cut Murphy. If they can’t, they still might cut him, though I’d be hesitant to do so until I knew I had a solid replacement at the ready. With the chance to save $8 million in cap space by releasing him, Murphy’s days look numbered. A player like Yannick Ngakouwe is the dream, but other options are available. In any case, the Bills should look to revitalize the defensive-end position sooner rather than later.