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Jerry Hughes contract prediction: how much should the Bills spend?

The Buffalo Bills have built themselves an outstanding defensive line. How much are they willing to spend to keep it intact, starting with pass rusher Jerry Hughes this spring?

Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bills hit the jackpot in May of 2013 when they traded their underperforming middle linebacker, Kelvin Sheppard, to the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for then-underperforming pass rusher Jerry Hughes. In the two seasons since, Hughes has produced 20 sacks and emerged as a feared pass rusher on the Bills' elite defensive line.

Now, it's Hughes that's preparing to hit the jackpot. Whether he hits the open market as a free agent in March, or is retained by the Bills at a franchise tag value in excess of $13.1 million guaranteed, he is going to see a significant pay raise next season.

What will it take for the Bills to keep Hughes? Two free agent details from the spring of 2014 can help inform that discussion.

Michael Johnson

Cincinnati retained their young, talented pass rusher via the franchise tag prior to the 2013 season after recording 11.5 sacks in a breakout 2012 campaign. He responded with a 3.5-sack effort in 2013, and was allowed to leave via free agency. Still just 27 years old at the time, he signed a five-year deal with Tampa Bay last spring that paid him an average of $8.75 million per year, and guaranteed him $24 million. Johnson recorded four sacks in 14 games with the Bucs this past season.

Everson Griffen

Faced with the prospect of losing both Griffen and veteran Jared Allen in the same offseason, Minnesota chose to let Allen walk and instead re-signed Griffen. It proved to be a wise decision; Allen struggled with Chicago in 2014, while Griffen had a breakout, 12-sack season. He had recorded 13.5 sacks as a rotational player in 2012-13 behind Allen and Brian Robison, but that production, combined with his being just 26 years old, led to a five-year deal that averaged $8.5 million annually and guaranteed him $20 million.

Hughes, if he's allowed to hit the open market, is a more attractive free agent option than both. He was more productive in the final two years of his contract prior to hitting free agency than either Johnson (17.5 sacks) or Griffen (13.5) were, with two separate 10-sack seasons. Like Griffen before him, Hughes will also hit free agency at a ripe 26 years old (he'll turn 27 during training camp next August).

The Bills, of course, already have big money tied up into their defensive line. All-Pro defensive end Mario Williams is entering the fourth year of a six-year, $96 million contract (with $50 million guaranteed) signed in 2012, and will count $19.4 million against the cap by himself. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kyle Williams has a $5.85 million cap hit himself next season, and will earn almost $5 million in salary and bonuses. And then there is All-Pro defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, whose 2015 season will be the final of his rookie year; he'll make $8.06 million next season, and will be a high-priority player to retain next offseason, as well.

For argument's sake, let's say that, inflating the numbers based on value and yearly NFL inflation, Hughes commands a contract worth $9.5 million annually and $5 million in guarantees per contract year. Could you handle him coming back on a five-year, $47.5 million contract with $25 million guaranteed?