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State of the Buffalo Bills roster: Edge defenders

A highly priced unit full of veterans is in need of some dynamic young pass rushers

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Baltimore Ravens at Buffalo Bills Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bills allocated more salary-cap dollars to the defensive line than any other team in 2020. The team’s defensive linemen accounted for $51.3 million against the 2020 salary cap, nearly $3 million more than the next closest team, the Indianapolis Colts. At present, the Bills have the second-most salary-cap money committed to defensive linemen in 2021, with $55.3 million on the books.

Whether that amount increases or decreases is up for debate, and whether it stays the same or not, the names on the roster are also in flux. The Bills have plenty of team-friendly deals in the sense that they can release veterans and owe very little in dead-cap charges against the 2021 salary cap. By releasing players, though, the Bills would still have to find people to replace those departed veterans, leaving some question as to whether they can find equal or greater production for lesser monetary value.

In our third installment of our State of the Bills roster series, we examine the edge players.

*Note: While he appeared in both the interior defensive line and the edge groups, for purposes of balance, Quinton Jefferson has been grouped with the IDL group

Jerry Hughes

Contract status for 2021: Signed; final year of two-year extension ($9.45 million cap hit; $2.1 million dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 32 (33 on 8/13/2021)
Playing time: 15 games (15 starts), 629 defensive snaps (58.73 percent), seven special teams (ST) snaps (1.58 percent)
Key statistics: 29 tackles, 4.5 sacks, four tackles for loss (TFLs), 11 quarterback hits, three pass breakups, one interception, two forced fumbles (FF), two fumble recoveries (FR), one touchdown (TD)

The longest-tenured Buffalo Bills player has a big cap hit and a relatively minor dead-cap charge if he’s released. In a year where the cap is tight, the popular call will probably involve releasing Hughes. That would not be a good decision on multiple levels. For starters, he’s been their most productive edge rusher in a system that often prioritizes setting the edge and playing contain over straight pass rush, so throw the numbers out for a minute. Second, Hughes has been dynamite in big games over the course of his Bills career. In four playoff games over the last two years, Hughes has six sacks, seven quarterback hits, ten tackles, and six TFLs, so he certainly saves his best for crunch time. Hughes should play out his contract this year. It’s also possible that the Bills could sign Hughes to a modest extension, spreading out his cap hit from this year over future seasons where the salary cap will, in all likelihood, be much higher. Giving Hughes another two-year deal, for example, could help their current cap, but it could leave them with an aging albatross of a contract in 2023. I think it’s most likely that Hughes plays out his contract this year as-is.

Mario Addison

Contract status for 2021: Signed; second year of three-year contract ($10,162,980 cap hit; $4 million dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 33 (34 on 9/6/2021)
Playing time: 15 games (7 starts), 606 defensive snaps (56.58 percent), 64 ST snaps (14.41 percent)
Key statistics: 30 tackles, seven TFLs, eight quarterback hits, five sacks, four pass breakups

Another veteran with modest numbers, Addison came to Buffalo to replace Shaq Lawson, a younger player who earned right around the same average annual value on his free-agent deal as Addison. The rationale was that, while Lawson was a solid run defender, Addison was the superior pass rusher, having notched at least nine sacks for four straight years prior to signing with Buffalo. Addison didn’t come close to reaching that mark in his first season with the team, and his age, cap hit, and dead-cap number make him another possible casualty of the 2021 “COVID-cap.” While Addison has history with head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane from their time with the Carolina Panthers, if the choice is cutting Addison to save $6 million or cutting Hughes to save $7 million, I’m cutting Addison. Keep the guy with the penchant for big plays in big moments who also happens to be the guy who’s been with the team the longest. Buffalo is going to overhaul this positional group—again—and the start will most likely be some veteran cuts. Adison is someone firmly on the bubble in that regard.

Trent Murphy

Contract status for 2021: Unrestricted free agent
Age: 30 (31 on 12/22/2021)
Playing time: 10 games (9 starts), 343 defensive snaps (32.03 percent), 63 ST snaps (14.19 percent)
Key statistics: 19 tackles, three TFLs, six quarterback hits, two sacks

Last year’s popular rumored cap casualty stayed with the team for the whole year, and he came up big when he was needed most in the Divisional Round of the playoffs against the Baltimore Ravens. Murphy was a healthy scratch for the season’s second half, as they gave more snaps to A.J. Epenesa and began starting Addison. He hasn’t been a productive pass rusher since prior to his ACL tear that caused him to miss the 2017 season—he had nine sacks in 2016 and has 11 sacks since—so the injury clearly sapped some of his ability. Murphy was also suspended for PED use prior to his knee injury, so there’s also the possibility that his production was linked to something more nefarious. Nevertheless, he has been a solid professional for the Bills, giving maximum effort on each play. He’s an unrestricted free agent, and unless there is little market for his services, I assume he won’t be back in Orchard Park.

A.J. Epenesa

Contract status for 2021: Signed; second year of rookie contract ($1,335,750 cap hit; $2,252,950 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 22 (23 on 9/15/2021)
Playing time: 14 games (1 start), 291 defensive snaps (27.17 percent), 79 ST snaps (17.79 percent)
Key statistics: 14 tackles, three TFLs, four quarterback hits, one sack, one pass breakup

Buffalo’s first draft pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the second-round end started his season off on the wrong foot, as he was a healthy scratch in Buffalo’s season-opening victory over the New York Jets. Epenesa also missed a game due to a concussion, but his playing time increased as the year progressed, and the coaching staff seemed happier with his results as the year continued. Epenesa played collegiately at right around 280 lbs, but this year, the coaching staff asked him to lose weight, which he did. The problem is that Epenesa lost a bit too much weight, and Beane said that Epenesa had trouble putting it back on during the season. With what should hopefully be a full offseason, the Bills’ training staff can help Epenesa to mold his body exactly how they’d like, which should help him to unlock his potential. Epenesa’s athletic limitations showed during his first season, but his technique helped him to achieve better results. The jury is still out on the second-round edge player, and his sophomore season will be a big one.

Darryl Johnson

Contract status for 2021: Signed; third year of rookie contract ($874,522 cap hit; $49,044 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 23 (24 on 4/4/2021)
Playing time: 15 games, 258 ST snaps (58.11 percent), 225 defensive snaps (21.01 percent)
Key statistics: 14 tackles, three TFLs, three quarterback hits, one sack

At this point, Johnson is really a special teams player who occasionally lines up at defensive end. I can’t imagine being the return man and watching a man of Johnson’s size come flying at me while I’m trying to make a decent return, but Johnson is among Buffalo’s core specialists. The Bills knew that he was raw as a defensive player when they drafted him in the seventh round out of North Carolina A&T in 2019, and he hasn’t progressed much in that area, though the team hasn’t exactly given him many opportunities by having him play just one out of every five defensive snaps. Look for the Bills to keep him around as a reserve and special teams mainstay, but if Johnson wants a larger role, he has a long way to go towards earning one.

Mike Love

Contract status for 2021: Signed reserve/future contract on 1/27/2021 ($850,000 cap hit; $0 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 27 (28 on 1/22/2022)
Playing time: One game, 35 defensive snaps (3.27 percent), 11 ST snaps (2.48 percent)
Key statistics: Two tackles, one TFL

The USF product was on Buffalo’s practice squad all year, playing in the season finale as a call-up thanks to the COVID rules. He signed a reserve/future deal with the team, meaning that he’ll at least be in camp to start the 2021 season. That’s a good decision, as Love has been with the team in some capacity for the duration of his professional career, so he knows the system and the Bills know him.

Bryan Cox Jr.

Contract status for 2021: Signed reserve/ future contract on 1/27/2021 ($920,000 cap hit; $0 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 26 (27 on 6/26/2021)
Playing time: One game, 23 defensive snaps (2.15 percent), three ST snaps (.68 percent)
Key statistics: One tackle

The veteran was a practice-squad addition this offseason, and he signed a reserve/future deal to maintain a spot on the camp roster for 2021. He only appeared in one game for the team and is probably headed for release in September barring injury, but you never know.

It’s clear that the Bills need some help here, which is crazy considering the resources the team dumped into the defensive line last winter and spring. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a high draft pick spent on an EDGE rusher, though that will depend on their priorities, as the Bills have needs along both the offensive and the defensive lines. I don’t expect that both Hughes and Addison will return, so the team will have to decide who stays and who goes. The youngsters will be expected to step up and make a greater impact next year, but it would be foolish to rely on A.J. Epenesa and Darryl Johnson to take over the snap numbers that Mario Addison and Trent Murphy garnered. The Bills are probably going to add a pass rusher—the question is through what means?