State of the Bills: Defensive end


My State of the Bills series continues with a look at the defensive end position headed into the 2020 offseason:

Under contract:

  • Jerry Hughes
  • Trent Murphy
  • Darryl Johnson
  • Mike Love
  • Jonathan Woodard

Pending Free Agents:

  • Shaq Lawson

State of the Position:

For a position that only has one pending free agent and five players still under contract, defensive end is also a spot that may have the most question marks for the Bills headed into 2020.

The biggest question is what’s going to happen with Shaq Lawson? The former first round pick in 2016 is set to become an unrestricted free agent in March after having not only a career year, but continuing to ascend on, what’s been, a consistently improving four-year career arc. Check out the numbers through his first four years in the NFL:

Shaq Lawson has had a really nice career arc through four years so far:

— Sal Capaccio -- (@SalSports) December 30, 2019

The Bills had a chance to make sure Lawson never got to free agency even before last season started, but declined to exercise his fifth-year option. That would have given Lawson a $9.451 million salary guaranteed for 2020. It also would have given them a chance to continue to negotiate a long-term extension through the 2020 offseason while making sure he was still under their control contractually. So there’s certainly a debate on whether or not the team made the right call to decline the fifth-year option. Since they did, Lawson will now be able to test the free agent market. It’s hard for me to see the team being willing to give him the same money they declined to a year ago, even after the season he had, but I think they’d like to have him back at a more team-friendly price. Lawson made less than $2 million base salary last year. If he is able to secure close to what the fifth-year option would have paid him somewhere, great for him and he should take that. But I wouldn’t go that high if I were the Bills, and I don’t think they will. My guess is, if they want to make a competitive offer to have him back, it would be somewhere between $6 and $7 million per-year, then put the ball in his court.  

Whether Lawson does or doesn’t stay with the Bills, they still need to get more sacks from the defensive end position, and they need to plan for the future there, as well.  

Hughes is still a solid, reliable player. He’s played 131 straight games, second most among all NFL defensive ends. He’s also going to be 32-years-old and is six years removed from his last double-digit sack season. He signed a two-year extension prior to last offseason, which kicks in this year. As part of that extension, Hughes’ salary cap hit will decrease from $12.95 million last season to $9.5 million this coming season. His spot on the roster is virtually guaranteed in 2020, considering releasing him would cost the team over $11 million in dead cap and not create any savings at all. And there’s no reason they should consider doing that, anyway, considering he's still their best overall end.

Murphy had a better 2019 than he did 2018 both in production and games played. After missing three games his first year in Buffalo, he played all 16 games last season, collecting five sacks and 36 total tackles. Murphy has one year remaining on a contract that will pay him over $7 million next season, carrying a cap hit of $9.775 million. If the Bills were tight against the cap, he’d be a prime candidate to be released. If they go big-game hunting and sign a high-priced defensive end, Murphy will certainly be expandable, given they can save over $8 million in salary cap space by releasing him. However, they aren’t tight against the cap, and they already have a few question marks at the position. So unless they have a ready-made replacement, they probably won't move on from Murphy, although it's certainly possible.

Darryl Johnson, a seventh round pick last year, was used quite a bit on defense through the first seven games last season, then saw his snaps take a significant dip, going from about 20 per-game to five or less. His special teams snapped also decreased, although he was still a regular in most cases. Johnson is still only 22-years-old. He’s an incredible specimen, at 6-foot-6, 253 pounds, and was raw coming into the league from North Carolina A&T, not having the same high-level college experience as many others. A full offseason in the team’s weight program and knowing the defense and it will be exciting to see where he can go next year. He could push for significant playing time if he develops the way the team hopes. If he doesn’t make those kinds of strides, he could be fighting for a roster spot at camp.

Love played three games in 2018, was on the roster bubble prior to last season, but was placed on injured reserve. He’ll be back to fight for a spot in 2020, but it might be a long shot for him next year.

Woodard was signed to the team’s practice squad after the regular season when Eddie Yarbrough was signed by the Minnesota Vikings, leaving a spot vacant. He’s been with four NFL teams since being selected in the seventh round of the 2016 NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Overall, there are a lot of financial decisions to be made on players already on the roster, like Murphy, on what to do with Lawson, and whether or not to pursue a big-ticket free agent. Defensive end could also be the spot the team focuses in on with their first round pick come April. I think Hughes being on the roster in 2020 is almost a certainty, but nothing else is beyond that. They could go into training camp with many of the same names already listed above, or could have a complete overhaul.

It’s a very intriguing position to monitor.

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