For the Buffalo Bills and all but two franchises in the NFL, the reality of the offseason has set in. Preparations by teams of how to attack the offseason, their own free agents, and late April’s draft are starting to take hold.
So as the next deadlines start to creep up, WKBW.com is taking a hard look at the roster and evaluating what happened in 2017, what could be on the horizon in 2018, and a recommendation for what to do moving forward. The grades you’ll see attached to the players are the result of film study of each and every week throughout the 2017 season for the Buffalo Bills.
To kick off the series, we’ll start with the defensive ends:
2017 In Review
*In order of 2017 Grade
2017 Season GPA: 3.33 (Snap Count: 782)
2018 Contract Status: $10.4 million cap hit, signed through 2019
Age: 29 (DOB: 8/13/1988)
- Some will look at Hughes’ stats from the 2017 season (44 tackles, 4.0 sacks, 1 forced fumble) and think that he wasn’t worth the money he was paid. However, the box score story is merely a small percentage of his overall effectiveness on the field, and if you watch him on a play-to-play and game-to-game basis, you’ll realize just how important he is to the defensive scheme. Hughes was the most disruptive defensive lineman on the Bills roster in 2018, often seeing double teams because opposing teams really didn’t see many other threats to get to the quarterback outside of Hughes. He’s done a lot of hard work on becoming a better run defender and not taking himself out of position, and combined with a natural fit to the Sean McDermott defensive scheme, has seen a lot of gains in that area of becoming a complete defender. As the Bills start to add more playmakers to the defensive line, you’ll see Hughes’ stats go up — but he can’t do it by himself, and a lot of times, Hughes had to try and do it himself. Based on his play in 2017 in a pretty poor situation, he is worth the cap hit in 2018.
2017 Season GPA: 2.79 (Snap Count: 497)
2018 Contract Status: Exclusive Rights Free Agent
Age: 24 (DOB: 4/24/1993)
- An outright training camp surprise that was supposed to be an afterthought, Eddie Yarbrough turned into more than just a good story by the end of the 2017 season. Yarbrough became a dependable, every week option and rotational defensive end for the Bills, rushing the quarterback from the left side of the defense. His biggest strength in 2017 was his ability to defend the run and to be sound on his responsibilities. That helped him become such a dependable option, that the Bills felt comfortable enough with starting him when Shaq Lawson was lost for the rest of the season due to an injury. On the downside, a combination of his lack of athleticism as compared to others at the position and not enough pass rushing moves to overcompensate really limited his effectiveness in passing situations. He’s proved to be a solid rotational player, and unless a major jump happens in the preseason and training camp, that’s likely to be his role again in 2018.
2017 Season GPA: 2.79 (Snap Count: 435)
2018 Contract Status: ~$2.8 million cap hit, signed through 2019
Age: 23 (DOB: 6/17/1994)
- After a procedure limited him throughout the 2016 season, 2017 was really our first true chance to see what kind of player Shaq Lawson is. He started off remarkably well, being among the top 10 performers each of his first five games with the Bills. His biggest asset was his run-stuffing ability, routinely forcing his way to the inside to limit interior runs before they truly took flight. He also held the edge well in that five-game stretch, showing just how dependable he could be. However, from that point forward, Lawson hit a proverbial wall. His performances dipped through the rest of the season, and he really faded into the background the rest of the way. In his final six outings, he garnered a grade of B-minus or worse due to a dip in production against the run, and an outright disappointing ability to get to the passer even though he faced a lot of one-on-one matchups. Still with two years left on his rookie contract, the argument can be made that there is still some potential there for the Bills’ 2016 first-round selection. Given his talent ability it is concerning, however, that he couldn’t routinely outperform Yarbrough.
2017 Season GPA: 2.77 (Snap Count: 487)
2018 Contract Status: $1.275 million cap hit, signed through 2018
Age: 28 (DOB: 2/24/1989)
- One of Sean McDermott’s free agent signings, Ryan Davis played at about the level of expectation you could have given the contract he signed. Davis was a dependable player that could flip to defensive end on both the right and left side of the line, which certainly helped when Shaq Lawson was lost for the season due to injury. He made some plays in big spots throughout the season, and served as a solid depth option for the Bills — who were really lacking in depth at the position heading into the 2017 offseason. While not a starting caliber player, the Bills could do far worse with a player that gets less than 50-percent of the snaps every week.
2017 Season GPA: 2.11 (Snap Count: 96)
2018 Contract Status: $555,000 cap hit, signed through 2019
Age: 25 (DOB: 7/11/1992)
- A late add to the roster due to Lawson’s injury, Capi’s best attribute his the effort he shows on every snap. He wants so badly to make an impact, and it really got him into trouble by failing to keep his main responsibilities as an edge defender against the run. In his limited snaps, he got caught way too often rushing to the inside, which allowed for big gains to the outside. As a result, his role on the team dwindled from being a bonafide rotational end, to being someone used sparingly (8 snaps) in the playoff game against Jacksonville. Former practice squad player Eric Lee, who was signed off the Bills practice squad by New England, seemed like a lot stronger of a fit for the defensive scheme, but there just wasn’t a spot on the roster for him when New England signed him away.
Recommendations for 2018
1) Consider trading Shaq Lawson
- This isn’t an open and shut case, by any means. Lawson is the team’s former first-round pick and is a much better fit for McDermott’s scheme than he was for the Rex Ryan defense. Further complicating this was his performance in the first five games of the season, in which he looked like a solid starting option for the team. However, more things need to be considered than just that. His downturn in effectiveness cannot be ignored, nor can the fact that Lawson was drafted by a Bills front office that isn’t currently employed by the team. As a young player Lawson still has some value, and GM Brandon Beane has shown that he will maximize value for any asset that he and McDermott don’t deem to be a good fit for what they’re trying to build. I wouldn’t discount the fact that Lawson was benched by McDermott for the start of one game for an unspecified reason, in favor of Yarbrough. If Lawson can help them in their supply of draft picks to rebuild the roster, or even as a pot sweetener for a potential trade up the draft order to get their quarterback of the future, Lawson is an expendable piece given his up and down play.
2) Draft a defensive end
- Regardless if the Bills do or do not trade Shaq Lawson, I believe it’s in their best interest to draft a defensive end from Day Two on. If they trade away Lawson, that makes the need become greater, and it could even be considered in the first round. However, the Bills need to start thinking toward the future at the position — at least from a depth perspective. Jerry Hughes will be 30 next season and is signed only through 2019 and Ryan Davis is entering the final year of his deal, which means there is a need for a rotational player with some starting potential down the line. The lack of a pass rush was a big issue for the Bills in 2017 — even if the play of defensive tackles were just as culpable for pockets remaining relatively clean against the Bills. If the player is good enough, it could even make Davis expendable — considering they’ll be able to recoup almost all of his $1.275 million cap hit by parting ways with him, which puts him very much in the ‘cap casualty’ discussion.
3) Re-sign Yarbrough and continue his development
- It’s really an easy decision for the Bills with Eddie Yarbrough. He’s an exclusive rights free agent, which means as long as they offer him a one-year tender, his options are to either sign it, or leave the NFL. Yabrough’s production in 2017 was a revelation for a team that lacked depth in a big way, and even with some of his limitations, they can help him develop into more of a threat when rushing the passer. At this point, you’d have to believe he’s a favorite to be on the roster once again in 2018 — and at a low, low cost.