Buffalo Bills' Top Priority: Re-sign Jerry Hughes
Buffalo Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes (55) hits New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) as he passes at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Photo Credit: Kevin Hoffman - USA TODAY Sports

“We want the Buffalo Bills to be a nightmare to play against.”
Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula – January 14, 2015

Terry Pegula likes to make statements, but typically those statements are made through actions, not words. In this northern buckle of the Rust Belt, fans in Buffalo have dubbed the city “Pegulaville” for a reason, and it goes beyond the fact that Terry and Kim Pegula own the two professional sports franchises in the city. Since purchasing the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres in 2011, the Pegulas have used their wealth to not just save the teams from leaving the area, but to invest in the city as well. Immediately following the acquisition of the Sabres, the Pegulas financed renovations to HSBC Arena (now the First Niagara Center), updating the service level areas and signage inside the arena, and constructing a state of the art locker room for Sabres players. The latest addition to “Pegulaville” is the privately financed $200 million HarborCenter, the centerpiece of “hockey heaven” featuring two ice rinks, the 716 sports bar and restaurant and a two-hundred room Marriott hotel scheduled to open in 2015.

The latest statement to come from Terry Pegula is the hiring of Rex Ryan to be head coach of the Bills, an indication that the “same old Bills”, as the saying goes in Buffalo, are no more. It was the first big splash of the 2015 NFL offseason and it is decidedly different than all other previous Bills coaching hires. Previous head coaching hires by original owner Ralph Wilson always came from the lower tier; the position filled by coordinators with no previous head coaching experience, or failed retreads such as Dick Jauron and Chan Gailey. Even Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy, the winningest coach in Bills history, was not highly sought after by other teams at the time he came to the Bills. Ryan may on the surface appear to be just another “failed retread”, but he has two AFC Championship trips on his resume that previous coaches that came after Marv Levy did not have. Bringing in Rex Ryan on a five-year deal for $27.5 million is a signal to the fans by the Pegulas that they are willing to spend to make the team a winner.

Now the Pegulas have the chance to make another statement, and it is one that translates directly to the product on the field. Throughout the last fifteen years of losing seasons that have ended many times without even a sniff at a postseason berth, Bills fans have suffered from the uneasy feeling that the team would never get better. How, they asked, could the team ever get better if the best players continually leave? For far too long, Bills fans have witnessed the top players on the team reach the end of their contract and leave for greener pastures. Antoine Winfield (2004), Pat Williams (2005), Nate Clements (2007), Jason Peters (2009), Andy Levitre (2013), and Jairus Byrd (2014) to name a few, all left Buffalo after the Bills front office was unsuccessful in their efforts to re-sign them.

At each turn (with last season's loss of Byrd as the exception), the team struggled mightily to adequately replace the departing player. That end result has been on display over the last two seasons where the loss of Levitre at the left guard spot has been severely detrimental to the offensive line as a whole.

Advanced stats website Pro Football Focus ranked the Bills offensive line 13th overall following the 2012 season, the last with Levitre in the lineup. Since his departure, that ranking has fallen to 22nd in 2013 and 30th in 2014. If the Bills want to truly get a good read on whether or not EJ Manuel is the future at quarterback, they will need to retool the offensive line, especially at the two guard positions.

In 2015, the player set to follow his predecessors out the door is defensive end Jerry Hughes.

Hughes is the lesser known member of the (arguably) best defensive line in the NFL. Playing in the shadow of big name defensive stars Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, and Kyle Williams has made him a bit of an unknown, but at age 26 and coming off back-to-back ten sack seasons, he is just entering his prime and could see his role increase under the tutelage of Rex Ryan. Acquired in a 2013 trade with the Indianapolis Colts for linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, Hughes has been one of the best players on the defense over the last two seasons. Viewed as a bust in Indianapolis for not living up to the expectations of a first round pick, the trade was a coup for the Bills as Hughes has been a play-making disruptive force since arriving in Buffalo while Sheppard fell out of favor in Indianapolis and was cut at the start of the 2014 season.

Hughes is now an unrestricted free agent entering 2015 and at or near the top of the list for teams in need of a pass rushing defensive end. He is a big money free agent that is likely to command somewhere north of the $6 million per year that Lamarr Houston signed for with the Chicago Bears. The Bills do not have another player on the roster to serve as an adequate replacement for Hughes to bookend the line, so it should be imperative that the Bills keep him to ensure that the defensive unit remains intact and ready to improve on the top five ranking that Rex Ryan termed “a bit disappointing”.

Besides deciding on the answer at quarterback, re-signing Jerry Hughes should be the top priority of GM Doug Whaley and his staff. The Bills need to announce to the league that Pro Bowl caliber players will no longer be using Buffalo as a halfway house prior to moving on to other franchises.

Bills fans can only wait and hope that things have indeed changed with their team and Hughes will be on the field in Bills blue come September.