Jerry Hughes has been a favorite of Bills fans since he arrived in western New York in 2013, when GM’s Doug Whaley and Buddy Nix traded LB Kelvin Sheppard to the Colts in return for Hughes, who was considered a busted pick by Colts front office members at the time of the deal. Given a fresh start in Buffalo, Hughes immediately paid dividends while rejuvenating his career, erupting with 10 sacks in his first season. Bills fans were overjoyed, having what seemed to be one of the NFL’s elite pass rushing duos, between Hughes and big money acquisition Mario Williams who racked up 13 of his own sacks that year. The duo put together a stellar sequel in 2014 also, combining for 24 sacks and things appeared to be falling into place for this defense, certainly as far as the pass rush was considered. With Hughes’ success GM Doug Whaley was quick to resign the talented pass rusher signing him to a 5 year $45M deal, with $20M guaranteed. “We decided to go all in on Jerry” Whaley said after the long-term contract was announced. It was clear that the front office viewed Hughes as an integral part of their team and a core piece to build around. Unfortunately, the success and dominance of Hughes and Williams was very short lived.
In their 3rd and final season together their production plummeted, as the duo struggled to transition to the 3-4 scheme new head coach Rex Ryan implemented in Buffalo when he arrived. The change in systems bumped both ends off the line, out of a stance; making them stand up edge players with coverage responsibilities. Under the new scheme, the once fearsome twosome only managed 5 sacks a piece, dropping off significantly from the two-years prior. During the dreadful 2015 season both Williams and Hughes revealed their frustration with their new roles and how it was hampering the defenses production as a whole, as QB sacks declined by 30 under Ryan’s leadership. Following the disastrous season Mario Williams left in free agency, leaving Hughes to suffer another year under Ryan and his 3-4 scheme, where his sack production remained lackluster notching only (6) while his new counterpart Lorenzo Alexander feasted with 12.5 sacks earning himself a trip to the Pro-Bowl. To many people’s delight Rex Ryan was fired before the 2016 season was even in the books, and with that came a promise that the defense would shift back to the 4-3 and Jerry Hughes could start making good on his new contract, returning to his old ways of sacking quarterbacks.
Unfortunately, Hughes would never again reach the level of success he enjoyed during his first two years in Buffalo. In fact, he has yet to record another double-digit sack total in the six seasons that have passed and has only averaged a paltry 5.1 sacks per year. Despite this drop off the Bills still decided to reward Hughes when they offered him a 2-year extension in May of 2019, following his lowest sack production to date, where he only managed to reach the quarterback 4.5 times on the year.
The extension cost the Bills $23.35M including $19.75M guaranteed and locked the veteran up through the 2021 season. This extension understandably had some fans leery, as they questioned Hughes’ steady drop in production and his inability to live up to his previous contract. These concerns only heightened this past season after Hughes turned in another lackluster performance off the edge, tallying 4.5 sacks on the year. Many of his defenders will overlook his sack totals as an insignificant gauge of success, as they point to the advanced analytics, which say Hughes was one of the most proficient pass rushers in the NFL, ranking 2nd overall in “Pass Rush Win Rate” winning 28% of his rushes on the year. While this seems a notable statistic when evaluating a pass rusher, one would assume a player who wins a high percentage of their rushes would go on to make a great deal of plays in the backfield right? The number one ranked player in “Pass Rush Win Rate” was Pittsburgh Steelers TJ Watt, who won 33 % of his rushes on his way to amassing 15.5 sacks and a whopping 23 tackles for a loss. The correlation between winning your rush and producing in the backfield would seem to go hand in hand, right?
Well, if that is true then why is it that Jerry Hughes only managed 4.5 sacks and an abysmal 4 tackles for a loss on the year, with all that winning? Again, the Hughes cheerleaders will shun statistics as a marker of a players success and instead point to intangible 3rd party evaluations, like a PFF (Pro Football Focus) grade, where Hughes ranked in the upper echelon of the NFL with a 75.3 (Khalil Mack ranked #1 w/ 92.5) While I don’t completely dismiss PFF as means of evaluating a player or utilizing advanced analytics As a whole I guess what it comes down to is, I am just old school in my belief that a well-paid edge rusher should, well… get to the quarterback and make plays in the backfield. When you break down Hughes’ salary & sack production compared to other pass rushers in the league, I begin to develop a bit of buyers remorse.
Kyle Van Noy $12.75M/ 6 sacks
Jason Pierre Paul $12.5M 9.5 sacks
Yannick Ngakoue $12M/ 8 sacks
Justin Houston $11.5M/ 8 sacks
Jerry Hughes: $10.7M/ 4.5 sacks
TJ Watt $2.3M/ 15 sacks*
Haason Reddick $3.3M/ 12.5 sacks*
Romeo Okwara $3.4M/ 10 sacks*
Leonard Floyd: $10M/ 10.5 sacks
Emmanuel Ogbah $7.5M/ 9 Sacks
Brian Burns $3.3M/ 9 sacks*
Denico Autry $5.9M/ 7.5 Sacks
Bradley Chubb $6.8M/ 7.5 sacks*
Maxx Crosby $825K/ 7 sacks*
Everson Griffen $6M/ 6 sacks
Derek Barnett $3.2M/ 5 sacks*
Aldon Smith $2M/ 5 sacks
Rashan Gary $3.9M/ 5 sacks*
Jerry Hughes will be 33 years old at the start of the 2021 season and will be six long years removed from the last time he produced at a high level. What is more concerning is his estimated $10.7M CAP hit, which comes at a time when Beane will be hard pressed to make the necessary deals to sure up the loose ends that hampered this team in 2020. This offseason he will be faced with the decision to re-sign LB Matt Milano and RT Darryl Williams, two guys who played significant roles in this teams success and would be hard to replace both through the draft. Aside from resigning two of their biggest free agents is the anticipated contract of Josh Allen, which is expected to be somewhere in the vicinity of $30M per year. Yes, there is plenty of fat to be trimmed elsewhere before we turn our clever on the longest tenured player on the Bills roster. Next season veteran addition DE Mario Addison is set to make $10.2M, rotational piece Quinton Jefferson who played well in limited action will be making $8M this coming year and stop gap DT Vernon Butler who by all accounts underwhelmed is scheduled to make $7.8M while reserve LB and special teamer Tyler Matakevich will earn $3.7M. On the other side of the ball WR John Brown is slated to make $9.5M. All and all that is a lot of buck for not a lot of bang and I would not be shocked if one or all are handed their pink slips in the weeks and months to come to upgrade the positions and to free up more cash. These proposed cuts would save the team roughly $40M in cap space and would allow Beane some flexibility to strike the necessary deals but is it enough? With all things considered from production to payroll is it time we send the kids upstairs and have the serious discission: Is now the time to part ways with Jerry Hughes?
Some will consider this question blasphemy, that certain players have earned the right to retire with an organization, despite their contract, despite their production, despite their age, despite their significance going forward. I will concede, veteran leadership is important, that a strong locker room presence is often times undervalued and that Jerry Hughes even going into his 12th season is still a solid player in many regards but is he worth $10.7M to this team, could we not replace his production and presence with a younger, cheaper alternative? Of course we could…. Though the Free Agent market isn’t seeping with premium edge guys willing to play for peanuts, Beane could still take a flyer on a low risk, high reward player who is hungry for the opportunity to take on a larger role for a playoff caliber team. There are several options available on the market right now and in the coming weeks as teams make their own cuts more players could be available. To replace the on-field production, Beane wouldn’t have to find a someone with an extraordinary skill set and history of immense output, theoretically he would only have to replace 29 total tackles/ 4.5 sacks/ 4 TKLS for loss/ 2 FF, which is not an extremely difficult task to accomplish given how pedestrian that stat line is. But is namesake and mediocre output worth $10.7M in a fiscal crunch? Call me coldhearted, but I for one don’t believe it is. I understand some of the blowback coming my way, I can see my timeline filling up now with people bashing me for proposing we release Jerry Hughes for some journeyman or castaway. So, if cutting ties with Hughes only to replace him with a mid-level player with the hopes of saving $5-7M doesn’t sound like a wise business move to you, then perhaps drafting a replacement in the first round does? This draft is crammed with top line edge rushers, players who could perceivably come in and contribute the same on the field production as Hughes in year one (That would not be asking much). The following players could conceivably be available to Beane in the 1st RD (30th) if he decided to replace Hughes via the draft, Jalen Philips (Miami), Carlos Basham Jr (Wake Forest) and Jayson Oweh (Penn State) with all making fantastic selections.
At the end of the day, it is about making the decisions to do what is best for this team, and sometimes those decisions can be extremely difficult. Walking away from Jerry Hughes may not be the ,most popular one but this is a business, and in the business world “If it don’t make dollars, then it don’t make sense.”