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Buffalo Bills training camp roster preview: Edge defenders

Lots of young blood at the position now.

NFL: Buffalo Bills Minicamp 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.

To combat the rising cost at the position and inject new life, the Bills have heavily invested draft capital at the position over the last two years, using their top pick in 2020 and their top two picks in 2021 to add pass rushers.

With the turnover, the position is going to look very different in 2021 and completely different by 2022. In our next look at the Bills’ roster, we examine the defensive ends.

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)
2020 Playing time: 15 games (15 starts), 629 defensive snaps (58.73 percent), seven special teams (ST) snaps (1.58 percent)
Key 2020 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, there will be some who want to release 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 Restructured deal this offseason voiding 2022 and taking a 2021 pay cut ($8.18 cap hit, $8 million dead cap if released)
Age: 33 (34 on 9/6/2021)
2020 Playing time: 15 games (7 starts), 606 defensive snaps (56.58 percent), 64 ST snaps (14.41 percent)
Key 2020 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 he would have been considered as a cap casualty before restructuring his deal. Now his spot on the roster is all but guaranteed.

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)
2020 Playing time: 14 games (1 start), 291 defensive snaps (27.17 percent), 79 ST snaps (17.79 percent)
Key 2020 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 in 2020, 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 a full offseason, he’s in the shape and structure they want him to be heading into 2021 which should help unlock his potential.

Gregory Rousseau

Contract status for 2021: Signed four-year rookie deal this offseason worth $11.6 million ($2.1 million cap hit, contract fully guaranteed)
Age: Turned 21 on 4/5/2021
2020 Playing time: N/A
Key 2020 statistics: N/A

Buffalo’s first-round pick in 2020 didn’t play college football in 2020, opting out because his mother was a nurse on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. He trained hard in the meantime and still went in the first round based on his monster season in 2019. He’s raw and may not play right away, but he’s got all the tools and potential to develop into a solid pass rush prospect for years to come.

Carlos Basham Jr.

Contract status for 2021: Signed four-year rookie deal this offseason worth $5.6 million ($1.02 million cap hit)
Age: 23 (24 on 12/16/2021)
2020 Playing time: Six games for Wake Forest University
Key 2020 statistics: 28 tackles (4.5 TFL), 5 sacks, 1 pass defended for Wake Forest

The more pro-ready of Buffalo’s NFL Draft DEs, Basham was the second-round pick and a redshirt senior. He’ll challenge for playing time right off the bat but isn’t as athletic as Rousseau. If he wasn’t there, the Bills were going to trade out of the spot and he was clearly their top-rated player available by a considerable margin.

Efe Obada

Contract status for 2021: Signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract this offseason ($800,000 dead cap if released)
Age: Turned 29 on 4/13/2021
2020 Playing time: 16 games (1 start) for Carolina Panthers; 415 defensive snaps (39.19 percent) and 65 special teams snaps (15.44 percent)
Key 2020 statistics: 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries, 5.5 sacks, 18 tackles for Carolina

Obada brings experience to the locker room at a low cost. He had a successful 2020 and played with Bills DL coach Eric Washington in Carolina. He’s a bubble player along with all the young additions at defensive end, but with half his contract guaranteed, he has a decent look at the final roster.

Darryl Johnson Jr.

Contract status for 2021: Signed; third year of rookie contract ($874,522 cap hit; $49,044 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: Turned 24 on 4/4/2021
2020 Playing time: 15 games, 258 ST snaps (58.11 percent), 225 defensive snaps (21.01 percent)
Key 2020 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. With the new additions to the roster, he’s not just going to be fighting other defensive ends, he’ll be fighting players at other position groups for the final spot on the roster.

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: Turned 27 on 1/22/2021
2020 Playing time: One game, 35 defensive snaps (3.27 percent), 11 ST snaps (2.48 percent)
Key 2020 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-19 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: Turned 27 on 6/26/2021
2020 Playing time: One game, 23 defensive snaps (2.15 percent), three ST snaps (.68 percent)
Key 2020 statistics: One tackle

The veteran was a practice-squad addition in 2020, and he signed a reserve/future deal to maintain a spot for 2021. He only appeared in one game for the team. He was injured during minicamp and was placed on injured reserve. He’ll miss 2021.

Players who left this offseason

  • Trent Murphy (Free agent)

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 be a huge surprise to see a high draft pick spent on an EDGE rusher next April, though that will depend on their priorities, as the Bills have needs along both the offensive and the defensive lines. Don’t expect that both Hughes and Addison will return so, as such, 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 Jr. 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?