The Buffalo Bills invested more money than anyone else in the league on defensive linemen in 2020, but the results left plenty to be desired. Mario Addison only played 56 percent of snaps, yielding five sacks and eight QB hits. Trent Murphy was paid a lot of money to be a healthy scratch for half the season. It’s natural to think that the Bills might want to upgrade their edge rush, and the free-agent market is the first place you’d look.
Edge rushers are hot commodities in the NFL, so pretty much any effective player would cost a pretty penny. The Bills might not have the cap space available at first glance, but moving on from players like Addison or Quinton Jefferson would net them enough room to sign someone.
That said, we’re taking a few names off the board because the Bills probably can’t afford to pony up for their services. Shaquil Barrett led the league in sacks in 2019, and helped the Tampa Bay Buccaneers win a Super Bowl this year. Bud Dupree is returning from a torn ACL, but had 19.5 sacks in 27 games between 2019 and 2020. Matt Judon is a two-time Pro Bowl selection with 15.5 sacks and 54 QB hits from 2019 to 2020. Yannick Ngakoue has never had fewer than eight sacks in a season. All four players were franchise tagged last year, and all four will be making at least $15 million per season on big-money long term deals. Below are a number of free agents whom the Bills could pursue (or have already been linked to) signing for the 2021 season and beyond.
Watt joining the Buffalo Bills makes a ton of sense. The five-time All-Pro may have begun to slow down after multiple injuries, but is still playing the game at a high level—he had 52 tackles, 14 tackles-for-loss, 17 quarterback hits, and five sacks in 2020. The 6’5” 288-lb superstar could flex between defensive end and defensive tackle for the Bills, and his leadership and effort are unmatched.
After being granted his release by the Houston Texans, Watt is already free to negotiate with teams. He’s aiming for a contract that pays him $10-$15 million per year, ideally with a Super Bowl contender, and ideally with a team willing to pay him until he’s 34 or 35 years old.
Also in Watt’s camp of old players who haven’t lost their edge is Houston. He’ll be 32 this year as he closes in on 100 career sacks, but had eight sacks and 25 pressures in 2020. Houston just finished a two-year, $24 million contract with the Indianapolis Colts, and he could probably be had for $8-$10 million per year on a short-term deal.
Okwara, a former undrafted free agent, looks like he’ll see a big raise from the two-year, $6.8 million deal he signed a couple years ago. In 2020 he had ten sacks, 18 QB hits, 31 pressures, and three forced fumbles. He turns 26 in June, and already has five years of experience. He could be signed for anywhere from $8-$12 million per year, depending on the deal structure.
Another unheralded player who delivered results for bad teams is Lawson. The former fourth-round pick has 20 career sacks, despite the Cincinnati Bengals not making him a starter until 2020. The guy had 32 QB hits and 44 pressures this year, but only made it home for 5.5 sacks. Like Okwara, Lawson turns 26 in June. He seems poised for stardom, but given his low draft status, lack of games started, and the weak team, he might come at a discount compared to the big names on the market—again, somewhere from $8-$12 million annually.
How much would you trust a one-year wonder? Hendrickson, a former third-round pick, finally became a starter in year four. He delivered 13.5 sacks for the New Orleans Saints. The athletic Hendrickson is 6’4” and 270 lbs and only 26 years old. But even in 2020, his best season, he only played 53 percent of snaps. Would you pay him $10 million per year with the hope of getting more results like 2020 from him?
On paper, Clowney seems just like what the Bills ordered: a 6’5” 255-lb former top draft pick with strength and speed to spare, who can play the run at an elite level and has enough juice to rush the passer.
In practice, Clowney’s inconsistent results and effort have made him too unreliable. He signed a $13 million contract with the Tennessee Titans, played in eight games, and recorded no sacks in 2020. A one-year deal worth maybe half that much is all he could hope for in 2021.
Speaking of inconsistent players, we can’t let Beasley go unmentioned. Here’s a player who was an All-Pro in 2016, just his second season, then played his way out of Atlanta—even though he had 18 sacks in the following three years, his overall tackle and pressure numbers suggest he was getting lucky more often than not.
Beasley signed a one-year, $9.5 million deal with the Titans, but barely played, and was waived by November. The Raiders put him on their practice squad and used him in a few games. All-in-all, his 2020 season was ten games played, four tackles, zero sacks, and one QB pressure.
The Spotrac Market Value calculator seems to be broken for Beasley—they think he could negotiate a three-year, $22 million deal this year. I’d be shocked if he gets $8 million.
I don’t really know how to peg Markus Golden. In 2016 and 2019, he had 22.5 combined sacks. The other four years of his career combined for 11 sacks. He played on a $3.75 million deal this year, and I don’t know what he’d cost in 2021. Ryan Kerrigan is a four-time Pro Bowler, but his production dropped dramatically in 2019 and 2020, and he was only a rotational backup this year. Similarly, Melvin Ingram’s stats cratered this year as he dealt with injuries, but he had 14 sacks and 54 pressures from 2018 to 2019. Olivier Vernon has 35 sacks in the last five seasons, but tore his Achilles near the end of the 2020 season.
Aldon Smith returned to the league after four years of being suspended from play, and had five sacks and 14 QB hits in 2020. Tyus Bowser, a former second-round pick, never developed into a starter, but he had seven sacks and 38 pressures between 2019 and 2020. Deatrich Wise Jr. stands 6’5” and 275 lbs, which fits Buffalo’s defensive end preferences. He only had 14 sacks in four years, but 56 career QB hits and a 2020 season with 21 QB pressures suggests he might be better than his counting stats appear.
Which edge rusher should the Bills sign?
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- State of the Bills roster: defensive end
- 2020 All-22 Analysis: Bills DE Trent Murphy
- 2020 All-22 Analysis: Bills DE Mario Addison
- 2020 All-22 Analysis: Bills DE Jerry Hughes
- How much does Mario Addison cost in 2021?
- How much does Jerry Hughes cost in 2021?
- Bills don’t have young talent capable of replacing their starting defensive ends
- Free agents that could help the Bills pass rush
- 2021 NFL Draft prospects to add to the pass rush
- Opinion: What we would do at defensive end this offseason