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State of the Buffalo Bills’ roster: Edge rushers

Changes are coming

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

The Buffalo Bills under head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier have deployed a heavy rotation along the defensive line. This year, that rotation was the heaviest it’s been throughout their tenure, as no edge rusher played on more than 52% of the team’s defensive snaps. Just one defensive tackle, Ed Oliver, surpassed that number.

Part of the reason for that was strategic, of course, but another part was the sheer number of roster-worthy players the Bills had along the edge. With one foot planted in the past and another firmly entrenched in the future, 2021 was a transition year of sorts for the team’s defensive line. With three veterans and three high draft picks, the group was one that had plenty of youth and plenty of experience.

Those three veterans are all free agents this year, and some debate exists as to whether those three young players have shown enough to be considered reliable pieces moving forward. Any way we look at it, there are bound to be changes coming along the defensive front.

In our continued look at the state of the Bills’ roster, we examine the edge rushers.

Mario Addison

Contract status for 2021: Unsigned; UFA ($2 million cap hit due to void year on contract)
Age: 34 (35 on 9/6/2022)
Playing time: 17 games, 482 defensive snaps (44.71% of team total), 2 special teams snaps (.46% of team total)
Key statistics: 29 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 7 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, 2 forced fumbles, 17 hurries, 25 pressures

For the second consecutive season, the veteran Addison led the Bills in sacks. For the second consecutive year, he did so with an underwhelming total, as he notched five sacks in 2020 before accounting for seven this season. Addison seemed to be the king of the “almost” sack, as he constantly was right there in a quarterback’s face, but was ultimately unable to finish the play. While it’s wholly possible that he’s back in 2022, it’s not likely. He’s still a solid edge setter, and he’s a great teammate with a great motor; however, Buffalo needs to clear the way for younger players to take over. They have the depth behind him, and the time to allow that depth to shine is now.

Boogie Basham

Contract status for 2021: Signed; second year of four-year rookie contract ($1,278,396 cap hit; $2,003,830 dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: 24 (25 on 12/16/2022)
Playing time: 8 games, 201 defensive snaps (18.65% of team total), 9 special teams snaps (2.07% of team total)
Key statistics: 18 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, 3 quarterback hits, 3 hurries, 6 pressures

For all of the frustration surrounding Basham’s season, as he was a healthy scratch in nine of Buffalo’s regular-season games, just take note of his production relative to his teammates for a silver lining. Basham seemed more to be a victim of circumstance, as the coaching staff had two veteran players they wanted active at all times accounting for most of the snaps. Basham showed some ability as a disruptor from both the edge and the interior, and I think that with an increased role next season, he has a real chance to break out.

A.J. Epenesa

Contract status for 2021: Signed; third year of four-year rookie contract ($1,602,900 cap hit; $917,200 dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: 23 (24 on 9/15/2022)
Playing time: 14 games, 330 defensive snaps (30.61% of team total), 144 special teams snaps (33.18% of team total)
Key statistics: 14 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 9 quarterback hits, 1 pass knockdown, 5 hurries, 14 pressures

After a monster Week 2 where he tormented Tua Tagovailoa and Jacoby Brissett, Epenesa didn’t do much the rest of the season. Too often, it seems like he is washed out of plays, whether due to a lack of functional strength or poor reads off the ball. When he sets the edge, he’s a useful defender, and he’s another high-motor guy with great character. Unfortunately, he isn’t quite as disruptive in the passing game as the team would like. Next year is a big one for Epenesa.

Jerry Hughes

Contract status for 2021: Unsigned; UFA
Age: 33 (34 on 8/13/2022)
Playing time: 17 games (16 starts), 558 defensive snaps (51.76% of team total), 2 special teams snaps (.46% of team total)
Key statistics: 18 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 7 quarterback hits, 2 sacks, 3 pass knockdowns, 2 forced fumbles, 19 hurries, 26 pressures

We didn’t see much of Gary this year, but Jerry Hughes was once again the edge player who took the most snaps for the Bills. Like Addison, Hughes also seemed to excel at the art of nearly sacking the quarterback, as he often was so close to bringing the QB down before he ultimately threw the ball somewhere else. As a soon-to-be-34-year-old player, Hughes is entering the twilight of a solid NFL career. General manager Brandon Beane and Hughes have both expressed a desire for him to remain in Buffalo, but it’s more likely than not that Buffalo’s most-tenured player will be someone different next year. If Hughes were to leave, the torch would be passed to long snapper Reid Ferguson as the team’s longest-tenured player. He’s been with the club since the 2016 season. It could be the end of an era.

Efe Obada

Contract status for 2021: Unsigned; UFA
Age: 29 (30 on 4/13/2022)
Playing time: 10 games (1 start), 237 defensive snaps (21.99% of team total), 56 special teams snaps (12.9% of team total)
Key statistics: 12 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 8 quarterback hits, 3 tackles for loss, 1 pass knockdown, 1 hurry, 11 pressures

A versatile free-agent addition, Obada seemed caught in a numbers-crunch for much of the year, and when he was active, the coaching staff didn’t deem his play worthy of additional snaps. He was productive in his limited time, notching more sacks than Epenesa and Hughes in far fewer opportunities. His versatility as an inside rusher is valuable, although that value may be realized elsewhere next year. With Hughes and Addison also unrestricted free agents, the team may view Obada as a younger, more cost-effective veteran insurance policy. They may also view him as expendable.

Greg Rousseau

Contract status for 2021: Signed; second year of four-year rookie contract (with fifth-year option possible); ($2,638,227 cap hit; $9,256,493 dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: 21 (22 on 4/5/2022)
Playing time: 17 games (17 starts), 531 defensive snaps (49.26% of team total), 52 special teams snaps (11.98% of team total)
Key statistics: 50 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hits, 4 pass knockdowns, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble, 14 hurries, 24 pressures

Sure, he didn’t have crazy sack numbers, nor did he have a slew of highlight-reel plays. He did have one, though, as his interception of Patrick Mahomes on a batted ball (that he batted himself, no less) all but sealed Buffalo’s regular-season victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. Rousseau was more productive in the first half of the year than he was in the second half, as three of his four sacks came within the season’s first eight games. Aside from some rookie hiccups, Rousseau flashed plenty of first-round ability. He was one of Buffalo’s most productive players along the defensive line, and with another year of professional strength and conditioning under his belt combined with the experience of his first 19 professional games, year two should be a good one for Groot.

Mike Love

Contract status for 2021: Signed reserve/futures deal on 1/24/2022
Age: 28 (29 on 1/22/2022)
Playing time: N/A
Key statistics: N/A

Buffalo’s perpetual practice-squad player, Love did not appear in a regular-season game this year.

Bryan Cox Jr.

Contract status for 2021: Unsigned; UFA
Age: 27 (28 on 6/25/2022)
Playing time: N/A
Key statistics: N/A

Cox Jr. tore his Achilles tendon in the summer, so he spent the season on injured reserve. He may re-sign at the veteran’s minimum for camp depth, but he may also move on if he wants a better opportunity.

For the duration of head coach Sean McDermott’s time in Buffalo, the Bills have gone with a “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” approach along the defensive line. Philosophically, the team wants to use a stable of players up front to stay fresh, generating consistent pressure. A rotation, therefore, negates the need for a “star” player along the front.

Hot take? That approach isn’t working. If there is a weakness in Buffalo’s defense, one that can’t be covered by game situation (the run defense, for example, can be eliminated as a weakness because Buffalo has an elite scoring offense), it’s the lack of a consistent and effective pass rush generated by the front four. Buffalo’s sack numbers were good on the surface last year, as they notched 42 overall. That total was tied for 11th in the league. However, Buffalo had 14 sacks in their final two games—five against Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons, who allowed 40 sacks on the year, and nine against the New York Jets, who allowed 53. They also managed six sacks in Week 2 against the Miami Dolphins. That’s nearly half of their season total over three games, meaning that the pass rush generated just 22 sacks over the other 14 games. Throw in five sacks over the Bills’ two playoff games, and the pass rush showed potential, yet was anything but consistent throughout the season.

This is a problem that could be addressed by adding a bona fide stud to the defensive front. Yes, I think Rousseau is going to develop into an excellent player. I even think that Basham is going to be an impactful rusher next year. Epenesa? I’m not so sold on him as being more than a rotational piece. Obada? A solid chess piece is valuable, but he hasn’t shown that he can be the guy that other teams need to stop in order to win. Adding a top-end pass rusher via free agency or a trade will definitely cost a ton, but if the Bills want to disrupt the elite passing games they’re going to face in order to win the AFC and advance to a Super Bowl, they need someone to be the guy.

If Obada wants to come back at a rate similar to what the Bills paid him this year, I’m all for it. Let Addison and Hughes leave. If Beane really wants to swing for fences, make some calls about Danielle Hunter, Marcus Davenport, or the edge rusher of your choice. Check in with Von Miller’s agent. Check in on Chandler Jones, who played his college ball at Syracuse and is represented by Joe Panos, a former offensive lineman with Buffalo. Trying the “all for one, one for all” method up front hasn’t worked out the way it should. What the Bills lack is a single player on the defensive line capable of wrecking the other team’s blocking scheme. What the Bills need to do here is find that player.

The Cincinnati Bengals aren’t a better team overall than the Bills are. Trey Hendrickson, though, is a better player than everyone on Buffalo’s defensive line. One player can make that much of a difference. The Bills need to find that guy along the edge. To hell with the cost. To hell with the future salary cap. To hell with the draft capital. Buffalo’s championship window is open now, and they need to do everything in their power to make sure they capitalize on it. Adding a premier edge rusher should be among the team’s top goals this offseason.