OPINION: 2022 State of the Bills: Defensive end

Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison are among four pending free agents

As the Buffalo Bills and NFL move towards free agency and the draft, my position-by-position "State of the Bills" offseason series continues with a look at the defensive ends:

Under contract:

- Gregory Rousseau
- Carlos "Boogie" Basham
- A.J. Epenesa
- Mike Love

Pending Free Agents:

- Jerry Hughes (UFA)
- Mario Addison (UFA)
- Efe Obada (UFA)
- Bryan Cox, Jr. (UFA)

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State of the position:

When the Bills drafted Rousseau and Basham with their first and second round picks, respectively, in the 2021 NFL Draft, many thought it would be Basham who’d be more ready to play and contribute right away, and Rousseau who would take some time before being asked to contribute. It turned out to be the other way around.

After a stellar preseason, Rousseau earned a starting job Week 1 and never looked back, starting all 17 games and finishing tied for second on the team with 4.0 sacks. Rousseau had some early-season success as a pass rusher that wasn’t matched as the year went on. He recorded three sacks in the first five games, but only one the rest of the season.

However, the 21-year-old proved to be fairly consistent against the run all season, even much better than many anticipated. He finished the season second amongst all Bills defensive linemen with 50 total tackles, and having far-and-away the most solo tackles for the group with 42.

The 6-foot-6 beast from the University of Miami should only get better from here.

Basham was inactive the first three games, then played two contests, was inactive for three more, then in-and-out of the lineup the rest of the season. The 24-year-old ultimately played eight games in a backup role, finishing with a pair of sacks and 18 total tackles.

The Bills had a crowded defensive line altogether last season, so while it can be concerning that he was inactive for more than half the team’s games, it also shouldn’t be an indictment on his development, yet. Basham offers versatility to play both outside and inside, and training camp will be a big one for him to show he can carve out a bigger and more consistent role.

After a rookie year where he only saw the field in 10 games and talk swirled about his weight, Epenesa came out of the gate a totally different player in 2021. In Week 2, he wreaked havoc on the Miami Dolphins, leading to several big plays.

Although he had some moments here-and-there, he was never able to maintain that high-level of play the rest of the year, then found himself inactive Week 6 against the Tennessee Titans. He was also inactive in a Week 15 win over the Carolina Panthers with an ankle injury.

After two years in Buffalo and the Bills still searching for a consistent pass rusher from the edge, it’s unclear if Epenesa will ever provide that role. He still has a chance to be a solid contributor, but Year 3 is going to be huge for him. This offseason, the Bills have to figure out if they believe Epenesa can become a more impactful player for them in 2022, as they decide how to approach the position.

Hughes is the longest-tenured Bills player still currently on the roster. He and long snapper Reid Ferguson are the only two players on the entire roster that pre-date head coach Sean McDermott. However, at 33-years-old (34 when next season begins) and an unrestricted free agent, those distinctions could come to an end.

The 12-year pro, nine with the Bills, was, arguably, the team’s most consistent end play-in and play-out, ranking in the top-15 among all NFL edge defenders in pass rush win rate by both ESPN and Pro Football Focus. However, that didn’t translate into production on the stat sheet. Hughes finished the season with just 2.0 sacks and only 18 total tackles. He hasn’t topped 4.5 sacks in three seasons, and hasn’t registered more than 7.0 sacks in seven seasons.

At his end-of-season press conference, general manager Brandon Beane said he spoke with Hughes and believes he still wants to play. Hughes and his wife are very attached to Buffalo, so it’s unlikely he’d prefer to play elsewhere if given the chance to come back.

At his age and with the youth behind him, the Bills could easily justify moving on. But even at his age, Hughes still played the most snaps of any defensive end on the team, and remarkably, he’s never missed a single game due to injury through his entire career. He’s been incredibly durable and available, something this regime really puts a premium on.

It’s also very possible they’d like to run it back for another year. But what does that look like? How much are they willing to, and can afford to, spend on him? How much does Hughes want to come back? It’s a tricky balance for Beane.

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While Hughes is 33 going on 34, Addison is 34 going on 35, as of September.

The veteran pass rusher led the Bills with 7.0 sacks this past season. In fact, it’s the second-straight season Addison led the team in that category, matching A.J. Klein’s five in 2020. This past year, he did it in far less snaps, going from 61% in 2020 to 45% in 2021. In other words, Addison essentially was exactly what Beane said he wanted him to be when he talked about him last offseason - a part-time pass rusher who can be more efficient by taking some of the load of off him. More evidenced by the fact that three of Addison’s seven sacks came in the final two regular season games when the Bills needed to win and he was still playing well.

Addison is now an unrestricted free agent and, like Hughes, there’s definitely a case to bring him back on a one-year deal, and one to move on from him in favor of youth.

Prior to the season, I felt Efe Obada would take another jump from his best year as a pro in 2020 in Carolina. I felt he'd be one of the Bills' better pass rushers in 2021. Just before joining the Bills, Obada had 5.5 sacks for the Panthers as just a situational pass rusher, starting only one game.

However, it never materialized like that in Buffalo this past year.

Obada was inactive for three of the first four games, and five of the first eight. He never found a solid role, despite being able to play both inside and outside. He had a few impactful plays, including two sacks against his former team in Week 15, finishing with only 3.5 sacks and 12 total tackles. He played just 22%of the snaps.

Maybe after assessing their team, the Bills will feel Obada can still be useful and try to re-sign the pending unrestricted free agent, which shouldn’t be too difficult. He shouldn’t command a huge market or a lot of money. but it certainly won’t be surprising if they elect to let him move on.

Mike Love spent his second-straight season on the practice squad all year, and once again signed a Reserve/Future contract to return to camp in 2022 to fight for a roster spot.

Bryan Cox, Jr. was hurt in training camp and placed on Injured Reserve for the entire season. He’s now an unrestricted free agent. His father was recently hired to be the assistant defensive line coach for the New York Giants.

Follow me on Twitter: @SalSports

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