While the catfight between Doug Marrone and the Buffalo Bills dominates headlines, the status of unrestricted free agent defensive end Jerry Hughes remains a significant issue for the team. Hughes was acquired before the 2013 season in a trade with the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for linebacker Kelvin Sheppard. In his two years with the team, Hughes has racked up 20 sacks in 17 starts.
In 2013, Hughes was used as a situational pass rusher in Mike Pettine’s aggressive 3-4 scheme. He played just 52.8% of the team’s defensive snaps, but was the league’s most efficient pass rusher, generating 59 QB pressures in 305 pass rushing snaps. In 2014, Hughes emerged as a full-time player in Jim Schwartz’ 4-3 scheme. While the Bills’ defensive scheme changed, Hughes’ role and impact didn’t. He generated 62 quarterback pressures and 10 sacks in 2014, but it was his ability to defend the run that allowed Hughes to shed the “situational rusher” label that was attached to him after his breakout 2013 campaign.
According to ProFootballFocus, Hughes was the 9th best run defender among 4-3 defensive ends in 2014, recording 24 tackles against the run with 17 being “stops.” Hughes’ benefitted from playing alongside three of the best defensive linemen in the league, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Mario Williams, where his wide alignment allowed him to see one-on-one matchups with tackles in space. However, his ability to disrupt an offense is unquestioned.
Now, the question that the Bills will have to answer is just how much to pay Hughes. In order to determine that, I took a look at contracts handed out to pass rushers over the past few seasons.
As the NFL trends more towards passing the ball each season, players that can disrupt a quarterback become more valuable. While many may point to the mega-deals given to Mario Williams, Robert Quinn or Charles Johnson as benchmarks for Hughes, it’s probably more realistic to look at the contracts signed by Everson Griffen and Michael Johnson last season for a better start.
Johnson was the premier edge rusher during the 2014 NFL Free Agency period, as the 6’7” 250 pounder was an athletic freak that had recorded 15 sacks and generated 118 quarterback pressures over the previous two seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals. He signed a five-year, $43.75 million deal with the Buccaneers.
Griffen was a rotational pass rusher that started one game in his four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings before inking a five-year, $42.5 million extension during the offseason. While backing up Jared Allen, Griffen recorded 13.5 sacks and 97 pressures in the two seasons prior to his extension. The numbers are raw on the surface, but those numbers in just 900 pass rush snaps are impressive, and similarly efficient to those that Hughes has put up.
Another aspect that could negatively affect Hughes is that he’s not the top pass rusher in the 2015 Free Agent class. More established players like Justin Houston and Jason Pierre-Paul will likely set the market at the top tier, while Hughes could fall in between them and the next tier of pass rushers that includes Brian Orakpo, Pernell McPhee, Brandon Graham, Jason Worilds and Jabaal Sheard.
Hughes has been a fantastic addition to the Bills’ defense and has been invaluable to the unit’s progress, but it’s fair to question the impact he’ll have if asked to be a featured player, rather than a complementary piece.
When combining all of the factors that will go into Jerry Hughes’ contract discussions this offseason, it seems that a five-year, $45.5 million contract with about $18-20 million in guarantees will suffice.