OPINION: Free agent pass rusher options for the Bills

With J.J. Watt now with the Cardinals, here are some other options for the Bills
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When you look at the Buffalo Bills’ sack rates in 2020, they don’t look too bad at all. Their defense finished the NFL regular season ranked 14th in sacks per-pass attempt at 6.63%. They finished 15th in total sacks with 38.

However, they really lacked to get enough pressure with their front-four, and those nice numbers were partly due to them blitzing at the eighth-highest percentage in the league (35.8%, according to Pro Football Reference).

Mario Addison led the entire Bills defensive line with five sacks, but that’s the same amount as part-time linebacker A.J. Klein had to tie for the team lead. Jerry Hughes had 4.5 sacks. No other defensive end had more than one for the entire season.

So, even though the Bills used their first draft selection last year defensive end A.J. Epenesa, they have to get more pressure from the position.

Over the past couple of weeks, J.J. Watt appeared to be an option for the Bills, as the former Houston Texans star was going through the process of choosing a new team after being released. However, that all ended on Monday when Watt announced via his own tweet that he would be signing with the Arizona Cardinals. It’s reportedly a two-year, $31 million deal with $23 million guaranteed.

For that price, I’m glad the Bills did not sign Watt. I felt anything over $10 million per-season was getting into the high-end type of territory for a player who has missed 32 of his team’s last 80 games. Although he did stay healthy and played a full 16 games last season, the veteran only collected five sacks, the same amount as the Bills’ co-leaders.

So with Watt off the board, who does that leave as possible free agent targets for the Bills when the new league year opens on March 17 at 4 p.m. ET?

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

Matthew Judon - 29 - Baltimore Ravens

I’ve always really personally liked Judon‘s game. He embodies what we’ve come to really expect from Ravens defenders over the last several years. He’s tough, plays hard, and brings an attitude to the party with him.

Just from those standpoints alone, I think he’d be a great fit for a Bills defense that may need a little more nasty to them. But he’s also very productive all-around, including as a pass rusher. He’s collected 34.5 sacks in his five seasons, including 8.0, 7.0, 9.5, and 6.0 over the last four years. Some very consistent production.

The Ravens placed the franchise tag on him last year. Not because he’s an elite pass rusher, but because he’s an extremely good football player who can do it all, and really in any scheme.

This is the kind of player that can make the entire Bills defense better, even if he doesn’t have great sack numbers himself at the end of the season.

Carl Lawson - 26 - Cincinnati Bengals

Lawson made a big-time entrance into the NFL, collecting 8.5 sacks his rookie year of 2017. Injuries slowed him down in his sophomore year and he only played seven games, collecting one sack, then had 5.0 in 12 games in 2019 and another 5.5 last year, playing a full 16-game season.

I like him and his potential a lot, and think he’d be a very good fit with the Bills. Signing him would be hoping that his numbers would get back to where they were his rookie year.

He’s considered an average run defender, however, and the Bills would have to think about how much they want to pay what would amount to a part-time player since he most likely wouldn’t be on the field all three downs, and also considering how much they rotate the defensive end spot as it is.

Melvin Ingram III - 32 - Los Angeles Chargers

Talent and production-wise, Ingram would be a terrific addition to the Bills defense.

From 2015 through the 2019 season, he collected 43 total sacks, 13th-most in the league over that time, including two different seasons in double-digits. He never had less than seven sacks in a season over those five years. Four of those years came after the Chargers drafted Joey Bosa, forcing teams to focus on him and giving Ingram more opportunities. However, he put up 10.5 sacks the year before Bosa’s arrival.

Two different knee injuries last year caused Ingram to miss nine games and he didn’t record a sack at all. He’s also going to be 32-years-old in April.

Any team signing him will be taking a risk due to the injuries combined with the age, and also has to think about whether or not he can be more than just a second-fiddle pass rusher who produces with a true stud opposite him.

Trey Hendrickson - 26 - New Orleans Saints

Hendrickson is very intriguing. A very good athlete, who played college football at Florida Atlantic, where he was a teammate of Bills running back Devin Singletary.

He collected only 6.5 sacks his first three years in the league, playing only 30 of a possible 48 games. Then in 2020, Hendrickson had a coming-out party, finishing with 13.5 sacks in 15 games.

He could be the darling of this year’s pass rusher free agent class as teams see him as a rising star. That would also mean his market will be very high if that’s the case.

Yannick Ngakoue - 25 - Baltimore Ravens

We’ve discussed Ngakoue so much over the last year or so that it seems like he’s been in the NFL for a long time. However, he just completed his fifth season, and he’s still only 25-years-old.

This is the kind of player you sign, put him on the edge, and tell him to go get the quarterback and not care about anything else, because he’s not going to give you much in the run game, anyway.

Ngakoue has never had less than eight sacks in a season, reaching that mark three separate times, including last year, then having another season of 9.5 and another of 12 sacks. He can bring high reward as a pass rusher if used like that, but will be a liability otherwise.

He has the 12th-most sacks of any player in the NFL since entering the league in 2016 with 37.5. But of all of those 12, he has the fewest total tackles by quite a bit, with only 122.

Haason Reddick - 26 - Arizona Cardinals

Reddick is someone I really liked for the Bills when he was coming out of the draft back in 2017, Sean McDermott‘s first year in Buffalo, because of his pass rushing ability while playing at Temple. There, he was a 4-3 defensive end.

However, through his NFL career, he has switched positions so much it’s hurt his game and he hasn’t been a fit everywhere. He’s gone from 4-3 end to 3-4 inside linebacker to 3-4 outside linebacker, where he played last year and flourished with 12.5 sacks.

He may not be the prototypical 4-3 defensive end any longer. He’s not a really physical player, so strictly 3-4 edge rusher may be where he has to stay.

Teams will evaluate if he’s a Swiss Army Knife type of defender they can use in multiple places.

Shaquil Barrett - 28 - Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Barrett had a monster 2019 season, collecting 19.5 sacks, then another eight sacks this past season on the eventual Super Bowl champions.

Prior to that, he had a total of 14 sacks in 61 games with the Denver Broncos.

However, he best fits into a 3-4 scheme and used as an outside linebacker who can also rush the passer from the edge. That’s not really what the Bills do or are presumably looking for. He also could very well be the No. 1 sought after pass rusher on the market when free agency opens.

Bud Dupree - 28 - Pittsburgh Steelers

Will Dupree even be ready when the season starts? He suffered a torn ACL in December, so he might not be fully recovered by the time the season begins, much less in late July when training camp is scheduled to begin.

He’s a very good football player who’s averaged almost eight sacks per-season over the last four years. However, the Steelers are a very blitz-happy team, and some of those numbers are attributed to that, as well as having T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward up front to deal with. They also mostly run a 3-4 defense.

Considering all of that, Dupree doesn’t really scream the kind of player the Bills need right now, but he could see a lower market and possible high reward later in the season and in future years.

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