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90 players in 90 days: Defensive end Jerry Hughes

The longest-tenured member of the squad enters the final year of his contract

NFL: Buffalo Bills Training Camp Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The 2013 Buffalo Bills were a totally different animal in comparison to the 2021 group. While the latter group is coming off an appearance in the AFC Championship Game, the former vintage carried with it all the weight of The Drought. The Doug Marrone Era (or Error, as it would come to be known) was about to begin. It was very much a team in flux.

Oddly enough, that last bit may be the only thing that the two squads have in common, as every team will expect a little change every season. The 2021 Bills return nearly all of their starters from 2020, but there are plenty of players nearing the end of their contracts or coming close to an age where it is fair to wonder if their days in the league are numbered.

In today’s edition of “90 players in 90 days,” we profile the elder statesman of the Buffalo roster, a man who’s been with the team through three Presidents, four head coaches, and four defensive coordinators (well, five if you count the Rob Ryan/Dennis Thurman hybrid from 2016).

Name: Jerry Hughes

Number: 55

Position: DE

Height/Weight: 6’2” 254 lbs

Age: 33 yesterday—happy belated birthday!—turns 34 on 8/13/2022

Experience/Draft: 12; selected by the Indianapolis Colts in the first round (No. 31 overall) of the 2010 NFL Draft

College: TCU

Acquired: Traded to the Bills for linebacker Kelvin Sheppard on 4/29/2013

Financial situation (per Spotrac): Hughes enters the final year of the contract extension he signed in May 2019. This year, he carries a salary cap hit of $9.45 million, which is the third-highest number on the team. If he is released, Buffalo is responsible for a dead-cap charge of $3.1 million.

2020 Recap: Hughes led the team in snaps at defensive end, logging 629, good for a shade under 60 percent of the snaps. He has led in snaps at end for all but one year of head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier’s tenure—2019, when Trent Murphy actually played more snaps. Statistically speaking, Hughes had another down year, notching just 4.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hits on the season. However, Pro Football Focus wrote that his pass rush win rate remained solid, as he has been in the top five at the position over the last three seasons. Hughes “wins” nearly one in five times he rushes, so he’s creating pressure even if he doesn’t make the sack. The numbers do back that up, as he had 25 quarterback pressures, 12 hurries, and seven knockdowns last year in addition to his 4.5 sacks. Hughes managed 29 combined tackles, four tackles-for-loss (TFLs), an interception, three pass knockdowns, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and a recovery returned for a touchdown. In the playoffs, Hughes was fantastic, notching six tackles, three sacks, three TFLs, and three quarterback hits in Buffalo’s three games.

Positional outlook: Hughes and Mario Addison make up the veteran portion of the edge rusher group, with youngsters A.J. Epenesa, Carlos Basham Jr., and Greg Rousseau filling in the young talent portion of the group. Efe Obada is a nice in-between in the hyper-talented end group, which also boasts special teams monster Darryl Johnson Jr. and perennial practice-squad player Mike Love.

2021 Offseason: Hughes has yet to participate in training camp due to a calf injury. He’s currently on the non-football injury list.

2021 Season outlook: There’s been some speculation that the Bills could release Hughes, saving money on the salary cap and giving his snaps to some younger players this year; however, I don’t think that’s going to happen for a number of reasons. First, Buffalo clearly values their veteran leaders, and Hughes is just that. Second, Hughes is still productive. Third, the Bills may have the look of an extremely talented defensive end group, but the truth is that only two players—Hughes and Addison—have done it consistently in the league, and only Obada has a season of true disruption outside of the elder statesmen at the position. Buffalo isn’t going to go into a year where they have championship aspirations with question marks at pass rusher when they need to vanquish a team led by Patrick Mahomes. Finally, if the Bills kept Trent Murphy last year, there’s almost no way that they’re going to release Hughes. At worst, if the young players show that they are clearly better than the old guys, they’ll make either Hughes or Addison inactive on game days before they release them. The bottom line is this: football (and team building in general) is all about the culture you create. You don’t create a good locker room by discarding your leaders, especially after the opening of training camps. Hughes is going to ride out 2021 with the Bills, and I bet that he’ll play fewer snaps but be more effective as a result.