The Buffalo Bills will be under pressure over the upcoming two months to improve what was the 30th-ranked offense in 2018 and put pieces around second-year quarterback Josh Allen, whose late-season play fueled optimism about his future.
Yet as the Bills approach the start of free agency in March with $79 million in cap space and April’s draft with the No. 9 overall pick, some of the team’s most important decisions involve the defensive line.
This NFL offseason is a prime opportunity for teams to reshape their defensive lines. Of the 32 picks in ESPN NFL draft expert Mel Kiper’s latest mock draft, 13 are either defensive linemen or edge rushers — including the first five players off the board. Defensive linemen, especially pass-rushers, dominate the top of ESPN’s top 50 free agents.
Some of those players might not be available to the Bills because of the franchise tag (in the case of free agents) or because they are drafted ahead of where Buffalo selects in the first round. But the Bills should not avoid adding to their defensive line in free agency or the draft simply because they have more pressing needs on offense.
The Bills’ defensive line is in a state of flux. Stalwart defensive tackle Kyle Williams retired at the end of this past season, and rotational backup Jordan Phillips will become an unrestricted free agent March 13. Defensive end Jerry Hughes‘ contract expires after the 2019 season, as does that of fellow end Shaq Lawson.
How the Bills handle Hughes, 30, will be particularly important. The former first-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts in 2010 was traded to Buffalo in 2013 and has played in all 96 games since, making 80 starts. He is Buffalo’s longest-tenured player following Williams’ retirement.
Statistically, Hughes’ production has tapered off since he posted back-to-back 10-sack seasons in 2013 and 2014. However, his impact was still felt with a team-high seven sacks in 2018, including three forced fumbles that matched his career high. Pro Football Focus graded Hughes as the NFL’s seventh-best edge defender last season and the best player on Buffalo’s roster.
Hughes’ contract situation leaves the Bills with multiple options moving forward:
Keep Hughes for 2019, but wait on an extension: Maintaining the status quo would require Buffalo only to stomach Hughes’ $10.4 million salary-cap number in 2019, the second-highest figure on the team but worth it given his production and reliability. Hughes will turn 31 in August and the Bills could use training camp, the preseason or even the entire regular season to gauge whether Hughes should earn the franchise tag in 2020 or a contract extension. Letting Hughes leave in free agency after the 2019 season could put the Bills in line to receive a midround compensatory pick in the 2021 draft, but that would require the Bills losing more free agents than they gain during the 2020 offseason. That is unlikely given Buffalo has an estimated league-high $133 million in cap space in 2020.
Extend Hughes this offseason: If the Bills feel comfortable about Hughes’ production continuing into his mid-30s, they could secure his services with a multiyear extension in the coming months. That would close the book on his potential departure after the 2019 season and keep the team’s top pass-rusher around as the Bills hope to contend for the playoffs over the upcoming seasons. There would be a risk involved if Hughes’ level of play diminishes as he ages, but recent history suggests pass-rushers can still be productive into their 30s. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the average sacks in a season over the 2009-2018 seasons actually increased from 3.3, for players aged 30, to 3.7, for players aged 32.
Trade Hughes this offseason: The Bills’ most forward-looking approach to Hughes would involve trading him this offseason in order to acquire a draft asset (or assets) before he could leave without any compensation next offseason. Trading Hughes would also free up $7.5 million in 2019 salary-cap space if the move happens before he is due a $1 million roster bonus. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported the Los Angeles Rams inquired about Hughes before last season’s trade deadline but were rejected, and presumably other teams could make the Bills offers this offseason.
What is the Bills’ best course of action with Jerry Hughes? He turns 31 in August and enters the final season of his contract.
— Mike Rodak (@mikerodak) January 17, 2019
The Bills could be successful with any of their approaches toward Hughes, but trading him this offseason could best set up the team to get younger at the position. The top five pass-rushers on the market — DeMarcus Lawrence, Dee Ford, Jadeveon Clowney, Frank Clark and Trey Flowers — will all be 27 or younger — and at least four years younger than Hughes — at the start of the 2019 season. Instead of paying Hughes, the Bills could acquire draft capital for him and instead commit their financial resources to a pass-rusher in his prime.
With or without Hughes, the first round of the draft also provides a chance for the Bills to acquire a young pass-rusher. The player could eventually replace Lawson, a first-round pick in 2016 whose production trended upward in 2018 but potentially not enough for the Bills to exercise Lawson’s fifth-year option for 2020 that is due by early May. Lawson’s contract situation could also make him a trade candidate.
If neither Lawson nor Hughes is extended, the Bills could enter 2020 with Trent Murphy as their only veteran defensive end under contract. Murphy, who signed a three-year, $22.5 million deal last offseason, saw his 2018 season derailed by several injuries.
Beyond pass-rusher, the Bills should consider defensive tackle among their plans for free agency and the draft. Alongside Star Lotulelei, who enters the second year of a $50 million deal in 2019, the Bills need a starter to replace Williams. The only realistic option under contract is 2018 third-round pick Harrison Phillips.