by Mario Granata
The start of free agency could be looked as the NFL version of Black Friday. Teams the first couple days were signing players to lucrative contracts, effectively setting the market value for players at their respective positions. The Buffalo Bills were no exception, as the possiblity of losing Jerry Hughes, a player who accumulated 20 sacks the past two seasons, was signed to a 5-year 45 million dollar deal. Hughes was “stolen” from the Indianapolis Colts for Kelvin Sheppard in 2013. However, there are two questions that have to be asked: Why were the Colts willing to get rid of him, and why did the Bills sign him? The question has varying degrees of answers.
Change of Philosophy:
The Indianapolis Colts were running a conventional 4-3 defense when Hughes was drafted in the 1st round of 2010 to play outside linebacker. Had the Colts realized what he could be come as a defensive end in a 4-3, he would probably still be there, nevertheless the Colts switched to a 3-4 defense in 2013. This is what ultimately led to the Colts trading him to Buffalo for Sheppard, as the Colts were struggling for linebacker depth. Essentially what the Colts were saying was that Hughes didn’t show them enough at linebacker to keep him on the outside when they switched to a 3-4 front. Could it be that he struggles to cover as an OLB is asked to do at times in a 3-4?
If the Bills were to get a read on Hughes and decide to offer him a long-term deal, it would be that they feel he would work well as an outside linebacker in a 3-4. Mike Pettine, however, didn’t anoint Hughes the starter in 2013. Records will show that Manny Lawson started fifteen games to Hughes’ one in 2013. In those 15 starts, Lawson racked up 73 tackles, 4 sacks along with a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception. Hughes’ only start was when Lawson was hurt. Throughout the season had 46 tackles, the 10 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles. Sacks aside, numbers would indicate that Lawson was the more complete player and in Mike Pettine’s eyes as well, given that Lawson was the starter the entire season. If you want to see an example of Hughes’ coverage skills, play back the New Orleans Saints game of 2013. He is still trying to run down Kenny Stills.
Transfer to 4-3:
When the Bills brought in Jim Schwartz, who is the antithesis of Mike Pettine, Hughes’ role was to put his hand in the dirt, pin his ears back and go; a stark contrast to what he was asked to do the season prior, but the numbers didn’t change much for Hughes. He accumulated 54 tackles in 2014 and again recorded 10 sacks. Lawson isn’t billed to play to that degree, even though he spent his college years playing opposite Mario Williams at NC State, he is more of a linebacker in the traditional sense. Setting the #55 aside, the Architect Doug Whaley might have had flashbacks to when he was in Pittsburgh watching Jerry
Porter come off the edge.
Insert Rex Ryan:
There couldn’t have been a better litmus test than having Hughes play in Mike Pettine’s system for Rex Ryan to evaluate what Hughes can do on a play-by-play basis. It is well known that Ryan doesn’t run the “conventional” 3-4 or Bear front that other 3-4 teams use, which is why Hughes was so highly coveted. Ryan likes to bring pressure and he loves to overload one side of the line to do so, however, with Hughes along with Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus and the newly extended Kyle Williams, he might change his philosophy. He doesn’t have to blitz as often and might use the pressure that is generated with the front four
and allow his second level players to make plays. It is well documented that Ryan will come after opposing offenses but he has
something here that he hasn’t had in his tenure with the Jets, and that is a complete defensive front. If he didn’t think that Hughes could play outside in a 3-4, maybe he won’t ask him to, and just let the linebackers pick up the slack in coverage. With a new team, Ryan might bring about a new philosophy and the Bills might look like a 4-3 rather than Ryan’s noted 3-4 or Bear front.