(WKBW) — As the sting from the end of the 2018 season starts to lessen for the Buffalo Bills, the reality of the offseason begins for the front office and coaching staff. And in doing so, they're putting together a strategy of how to navigate the offseason -- from free agency to the 2019 NFL Draft.
As the weeks pass by teams, get closer and closer to the annual offseason deadlines. In preparation, 7ABC will take an in-depth look at the current roster while evaluating what happened in 2018, what it could tell us as to the team's plans for 2019, and some author recommendations of how to march forward. The grades attached to each player is the result of an in-depth film study done by 7ABC every week through the 2018 season.
Up next, a position that seems relatively set for now but not as much past 2019, defensive end:
2018 In Review
*In order of 2018 grade with 200 snaps or more
2018 Season GPA: 3.25 (Snap Count: 669)
2019 Contract Status: $10.4 million cap hit, signed through 2019 season
Age: 30 (8/13/1988)
- Another year has gone by, but the story with Jerry Hughes remains the same. He is, without question, one of the best players on the team and has been basically upon his arrival from Indianapolis. While the sack totals in 2018 only went up slightly from 2017 (from four to seven), that doesn't even begin to tell the story about Hughes and what he means to the defense. On most snaps during a game, Hughes is the opposition's highest priority to deal with by the offensive line. He gets all the attention, but Hughes still manages to disrupt the backfield and sets the table for his teammates to pick up the pieces and the stats for themselves. Even though he was 30 this past season, Hughes played at an extremely high level in both run stuffing and pass rushing opportunities. It didn't seem like he slowed down at all from the dominant player he was in 2017, despite only having the four sacks to show for it. In 2019, he'll once again be the top pass rusher on the roster -- which will then pave the way for a fascinating discussion in the 2020 offseason when Hughes is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent going into his age-32 season.
2018 Season GPA: 3.06 (Snap Count: 440)
2019 Contract Status: ~$3.3 million cap hit, signed through 2019 season
Age: 24 (6/17/1994)
- Without question, the most improved player from 2017 to 2018 was third-year player Shaq Lawson. In a pivotal season for the longevity of his career, the former first-round pick saw the Bills signing of Trent Murphy and used it as motivation to improve and not gloss over the nuances of the job. In return for his hard work, the Bills now have a player on their hands that was great against the run all season, improved as a pass rusher from what he was in his first two seasons, and also created a new tool for himself to distrupt the play -- batting down the ball at the line of scrimmage. While Lawson still has room to improve as a pass rusher and to provide some additional disruption for the team, one cannot simply ignore his progress in all areas of his game from 2017 to 2018. By the end of the season, even when Trent Murphy was healthy, it was a down-the-middle split in snap counts. In the final six games, Lawson received 189 snaps on defense compared to Murphy's 190. The two will likely be in a battle this summer to determine the starter for the 2019 season.
2018 Season GPA: 2.76 (Snap Count: 441)
2019 Contract Status: ~$8.5 million cap hit, signed through 2020 season
Age: 28 (12/22/1990)
- In the 2018 offseason, the Buffalo Bills made two sizable moves in free agency to help their defense. They brought in Star Lotulelei to fill a massive hole in the middle of their defensive line, and they added a pass rusher to the rotation in Trent Murphy -- a player coming off of an injury that they got at a manageable cost for a player at his position. The plan for Murphy, once healthy, was to be the starting left defensive end working against the right tackles. The trouble was that Murphy had a battle with injuries for much of his first season with the team. He had to rehab his knee injury from 2017 during offseason workouts, a groin injury derailed his summer leading up to the start of the 2018 season, and then a knee injury in the middle of the season forced him to miss three weeks of the regular season. In the meantime, Murphy saw Shaq Lawson have the best year of his career. Murphy uses his length and balance quite well when healthy, which helps him keep the offensive tackles off of his pads which means he's only one rip move away from bringing down a stalling quarterback. Murphy wasn't much of a bender in 2018, which means he has to win with physicality if he wants to bring down the quarterback. The Bills are hoping for a jump in production in 2019 from Murphy, now with what they hope to be a healthy offseason leading into the spring workouts.
2018 Season GPA: 2.68 (Snap Count: 307)
2019 Contract Status: Exclusive Rights Free Agent
Age: 25 (4/24/1993)
- Back in the summer of 2017, Eddie Yarbrough went from an afterthought on the third unit of the defense to become the darling of preseason and underdog story that cracked the 53-man roster. Then in 2018, Yarbrough was an unquestioned piece of the defensive end rotation -- even switching from the left side to the right side to be Jerry Hughes' immediate backup. The trouble for Yarbrough, though, is that he started to fade into the background and wasn't making impact plays that helped their second defensive line unit. He was sound against the run as usual, but in pass rushing opportunities, Yarbrough didn't bring much to the table. He generated no sacks and no forced fumbles in 307 total snaps. While there's a lot to be said for consistency and being where you need to be against the run, the Bills need more in the form of a pass rush from their second unit. That's why, at the end of the year, Yarbrough was losing snaps to undrafted rookie Mike Love -- culminating with Yarbrough being made inactive in Week 17. If they tender him as an Exclusive Rights Free Agent, Yarbrough is going to have to earn it this summer all over again -- just as he did in 2017.
Players with fewer than 200 snaps
2018 Season GPA: 2.79 (Snap Count: 48)
2019 Contract Status: $570,000 cap hit, signed through 2020 season
Age: 24 (1/22/1994)
- Going through the development program that the Bills set for so many of their undrafted rookies in 2018, it ended with Mike Love getting added to the active roster for the final four games of the season. In a small sample size Love showed some rookie mistakes, but also showed an ability to provide some pressure that the Bills didn't have in the first 12 games from their backup right defensive end. If the Bills don't add to the defensive end group, Love has a shot to make the roster in 2019 -- and is a candidate to be on the practice squad once again if he doesn't make the squad.
*Nate Orchard took 35 snaps from Weeks Two through Four before being released in Week Five.
Recommendations for 2019
1) Decline the fifth-year option on Shaq Lawson
- The Bills have to decide this offseason about their gameplan with former first-round pick Shaq Lawson. While Lawson undoubtedly took them by surprise in 2018 with how much he improved in all areas, their feeling about him in the prism of the fifth-year option designation is an entirely different notion altogether. As a player that the Bills selected in the first round, but outside of the top ten, that means Lawson's potential salary for his 2020 season would be the average of the defensive end salaries between the ranges of the 3rd highest paid, through the 25th highest paid player in the league. That amount isn't set just yet, because it gets determined by the previous year's salary which, in Lawson's case, would be the 2019 season. Still with free agency and the draft to go, it could cause this amount to go even higher than it is now. However, as it stands on January 16, 2019, if the Bills were to exercise their fifth-year option on Lawson, the cap hit is around $11 million. Lawson is surely a feel-good story from what he did in 2018, but he is not worth over $10 million. In that sense, the smartest course of action is to decline the option which could yield a two-fold return. It would mean Lawson is entering his contract year, in another prove-it situation to maximize his value in free agency. With him playing the position that he does, those free agent contracts are usually amongst the largest for a good enough player, which would put the Bills in the ball game for receiving a compensatory selection for the loss of Lawson in the 2021 NFL Draft. Now, if Lawson lights the world on fire in 2019, the Bills could even consider re-signing him. However, no matter what, declining Lawson's fifth-year option gives the Bills the most versatility moving forward in the shaping of their roster.
2) Keep Trent Murphy
- I don't believe this is a notion that the Bills are taking seriously, though the clamoring of bits and pieces of the fan base for the Bills to move on from Trent Murphy grew a bit louder near the end of the season. Regardless, I think the smartest thing for the Bills is to keep Murphy on their roster for the 2019 season. If he returns to full health and is more like the player Washington had in 2016, the Bills have a productive pass rusher on a completely manageable contract for both the 2019 and 2020 season. If he doesn't return to form, the Bills can walk away from the Murphy contract in the 2020 offseason with a dead cap hit of only $1.75 million, and a potential cap savings of $7.2 million. With so much cap room to work with already, it makes little sense to walk away from a viable rotational defensive end at a reasonable cost for his position. I think Murphy is here to stay for 2019.
3) 2020: the year of a defensive end overhaul?
- If the Bills were to go through the 2019 offseason without adding a single piece to the defensive end position, they would still boast an above average group that has solid depth, and with one outstanding pass rusher in Jerry Hughes. However, once 2019 is over, that's when we could see a dramatic shift in the roster composition at defensive end. Hughes will be going into his age-32 season and an unrestricted free agent. If the Bills decline Lawson's fifth-year option, he'll be due as an unrestricted free agent, too. And if Trent Murphy doesn't turn the corner, they have a clear walk away option with the final year of his contract in 2020. With all that potential turnover, I wouldn't rule out the Bills taking a big swing at defensive end in the 2019 offseason, to not have there be so much turnover from one year to the next. I don't think they'll throw crazy money around in free agency, but they might at least have the conversation about some of the bigger name guys -- especially with the need for more pressure off the edge to help the defense. Even in the 2019 NFL Draft, I would not be surprised at all if the Bills were to take a defensive end with either the ninth overall selection of the first round or with their second-round pick. A potential storm at defensive end is in the distance, and they can certainly soften the impact of having so much turnover at one position in one offseason.
**All contract information aggregated from the Buffalo Bills media guide and Spotrac.com