The Buffalo Bills signed pass rusher Jerry Hughes to a five-year, $45 million contract that includes $22 million guaranteed back in March. They did so because he had earned it over his two seasons with the Bills, and with his pricy new deal in hand, Hughes enters the 2015 season as one of the most prominent figures on the team.
Hughes isn't quite a forgotten man for the Bills - it's difficult to go unnoticed when you accumulate 20 sacks in a two-year window - but he does have something of an also-ran status on Buffalo's big-name defensive line. Mario Williams and Marcell Dareus were both first team All-Pro selections last year, and Kyle Williams earned his fourth Pro Bowl nod in five years, as well. Hughes struck out on the postseason awards circuit, despite more than holding his own when stacked up against his teammates.
His breakout campaign came in 2013, when he scored a plus-21.6 pass rush rating from Pro Football Focus en route to a 10-sack campaign as a part-time player for Mike Pettine. Assuming full-time starter duties in 2014 under Jim Schwartz - in a much simpler defense that did not cater to Hughes' strengths nearly as well - he was just as impressive, sacrificing some pass-rushing productivity in order to prove himself as a rock-solid run defender. His plus-9.7 rating against the run was better than Mario Williams', and ranked him in the Top 10 at PFF amongst 4-3 ends, 3-4 outside linebackers, and 4-3 outside linebackers.
There's little question that Hughes will be an every-down player for the Bills now, even as they transition back to more of a hybrid look under new head coach Rex Ryan. In that sense, Hughes has something to prove for a third straight year with the Bills: that he can be versatile enough to play in more than just rush packages in a formation-aggressive scheme, and remain productive doing so. He played nearly 20 percent more snaps in 2014 than he did in 2013, and if he's going to stay at that play time percentage in 2015, he'll need to do things like drop into zone coverages and occasionally run with tight ends up the seam. Hughes' job will become more difficult under Ryan.
It'll also be more difficult because he's no longer the benefactor of anonymity. His teammates receive all of the attention nationally, but if an opponent is game-planning to stop any Bills edge rusher, it's Hughes, as he is the team's only speed threat off the edge. He has popped on film ever since arriving in Buffalo, and the team's opponents will have noticed that by now.
Penalties are Hughes' biggest weakness. This awful call aside, Hughes has to clean up his act on that front. He repeatedly drew the ire of departed head coach Doug Marrone for personal foul calls, and Hughes is one of the biggest offenders on a team that accumulated the fifth-highest penalty total in the league a year ago. Some of this is forgivable, especially since Hughes is (more than) a net positive on the field, but it's an annoying factor that has held him back at times.
Hughes enters the 2015 season as the 12th-highest paid edge rusher in the NFL (for comparison, Mario Williams is No. 6 on the list); he'll earn $11.775 million this year. In his two years with the Bills, Hughes has proven himself an above-average pass rusher and a fine complement to the rest of the Bills' defensive linemen. Now, however, there should be an expectation for something more; for his ascent to reach its peak, and for Hughes to emerge as a bona fide star. He has the ability, and the opportunity given his creative play-calling head coach and the talent of his teammates. We'll see what 2015 brings for Buffalo's most unheralded defensive lineman.