Buffalo Bills’ defensive end Jerry Hughes is entering the 2014 season with far lower expectations than a player that recorded 10 sacks just a year ago should be. However, he’ll likely be starting opposite Mario Williams at defensive end, a position lacking quality depth, meaning that the 25-year old, soon to be free agent, will have a much bigger role than last season.
In 2013, former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine used Hughes, a 6’2” 255 pound “tweener” in a limited role as a situational stand-up pass rusher. Hughes thrived in that role, racking up 46 tackles and 10 sacks, while generating a total of 59 quarterback pressures (sacks, hits, hurries). Hughes’ 59 QB pressures were the 7th most at his position, however, his 621 snaps ranked 27th among outside linebackers. Those numbers show just how efficient and effective Hughes was with the sole responsibility of getting after the quarterback.
The primary cause for concern with Hughes this season is that he doesn’t have ideal length (height, arms) for defensive end in Jim Schwartz’ 4-3 fronts, as he’ll be playing in a three-point stance head up against a left tackle. Last season, Hughes’ size was compensated for in Pettine’s hybrid scheme, as he rushed from an outside linebacker position, where he used his speed and quickness to run around offensive linemen.
While the position switch isn’t ideal, it’s important to see how Schwartz has used his defensive ends in the past. During Schwartz’ time in Tennessee and Detroit, his defenses employed a lot of “wide 9” alignments, in which the defensive ends line up outside of the tight end’s shoulder, rather than outside of the tackle’s. Over the years, Schwartz’ defenses have consistently pressured opposing quarterbacks, as he’s had defensive linemen eclipse the eight sack mark 11 times, and five players with 10 sacks.
One edge rusher that Schwartz had incredible success with during his time with the Lions was Cliff Avril. Like Hughes, Avril is a smaller (6’3” 260 lbs) defensive end, but he’s explosive off the snap and can bend the edge.
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Hughes’ measurables are nearly identical to Avril’s, with the exception of 10-yard split, which translates to burst, and the shuttle, which equates to change-of-direction ability.
During the four years that Avril played under Schwartz, he racked up 34.5 sacks.
While it would be nice to have two edge defenders with Mario Williams’ combination of size, length, power and explosiveness, already having him on the defensive line will take pressure off of whoever is opposite him.
The primary issue that concerns me with Hughes is the question of whether he has the ability to effectively set the edge and shed blocks against the run. While I don’t think he’ll be the one to consistently set the edge and fill, it’s also highly likely that Manny Lawson, Jarius Wynn or even Alan Branch will sub in on obvious run downs.
With an already strong defensive line and an upgraded overall defense surrounding him, Jerry Hughes has the chance to build on his strong 2013 campaign with huge incentives, as he’s set to become an unrestricted free agent following the year.