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Opinion: What the Buffalo Bills should do at pass rusher this offseason

Watt now?

First and most importantly, I make no apologies for the pun in the subtitle.

With the news breaking Monday afternoon that former Houston Texans’ star and three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt was signing a two-year contract with the Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills fans are turning their attention towards the unrestricted free-agent and draft classes at the position. After watching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers successfully get pressure on Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl—the same quarterback the Bills struggled to impede in the AFC Championship game, Bills Mafia is zoned in on how to improve the pass rush in 2021 and improve on a defensive line group that was the league’s highest-paid in 2020.

So what can Buffalo do to see to it that Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs fear the pass rush when the Bills play them in 2021? I have some thoughts...

1. Release Vernon Butler

Butler was an odd fit for the Bills when he signed as an unrestricted free agent in 2020. He was flirting strongly with the “bust” label prior to 2019 while with the Carolina Panthers—but in that 2019 season he accumulated six sacks on only 16 pressures while playing more five technique in the instances the Panthers went to a 3-4 defensive look. The same pressure-to-sack ratio unsustainability that brought up questions about re-signing Jordan Phillips (26 pressures, ten sacks in 2019) were also brought up with Butler along with that “breakout” year coming in a system that incorporated looks the Bills would not be utilizing.

Coming to Buffalo on a two-year, $15 million contract was always a little puzzling under those circumstances, and Butler performed at a replacement level during the 2021 season overall. General manager Brandon Beane built an “out” into the contract after one year, though, with Butler being able to be released with a cap savings of $8.3 million and a dead-cap hit of only $1 million.

But how does releasing Butler help the pass rush? First off, it frees up capital that can be invested elsewhere. Second, it frees up snaps for players who are more effective, like Justin Zimmer, who accumulated 20 pressures on 163 pass rush snaps versus Butler’s 15 pressures on 266 pass rush snaps. Third, it frees up snaps for the returning Star Lotulelei who, in turn, can help command the double teams at one-technique defensive tackle necessary to help penetrating-style players like Ed Oliver and Quinton Jefferson to more effectively do their jobs without being miscast.

2. Sign Carl Lawson

Spotrac currently projects Carl Lawson to get a contract in the neighborhood of $8.8 million. If his market truly bears that out, it’s an absolute steal for a player who, statistically, would have been the best pass rusher on the Bills’ defensive line in 2020. Lawson’s 64 pressures during the regular season topped Jerry Hughes’s 54, and it should be noted that they possess similar frames and straight-line speed (Hughes is 6’2”, 254 lbs and ran a 4.65 40-yard dash; Lawson is 6’2”, 265 lbs and ran a 4.67 40-yard dash). With Hughes carrying a $9.45 million cap hit into the 2021 season, getting a pass rusher just as productive for a similar amount of money who is younger feels like a great opportunity for a needed jolt of youth to the group. Who among us wouldn’t sign up for a younger Jerry Hughes?

3. Draft Shaka Toney

Much like my previous draft crush (Notre Dame TE Tommy Tremble), Toney doesn’t get the shine he probably deserves due to the consistent presence of a more-hyped teammate at his same position. For Tremble, it was Cole Kmet and then Michael Mayer. For Toney, it was Yetur Gross-Matos and now Jayson Oweh. His smaller frame will scare some teams off, but 240-lb edge rushers with his explosiveness have a place in the NFL, and with Lawson, Epenesa, and Mario Addison in front of him, Toney can be a designated pass-rush specialist early in his career while the NFL’s strength program gets a hold of him. I anticipate Toney to be a day three pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

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