The News will examine 10 questions facing the Buffalo Bills leading up to the start of training camp.
By Jay Skurski
News Sports Reporter
It’s easy to come up with reasons why the Buffalo Bills moved on from Mario Williams this season.
His bloated salary was an anchor on the team’s salary cap, and his inconsistent effort undermined the coaching staff.
What’s more difficult, however, is figuring out how the Bills are going to replace him.
Earlier this offseason, the answer was easy: First-round draft pick Shaq Lawson would step in and team up with Jerry Hughes to give the Bills bookend pass rushers to torment opposing offenses.
But then things got complicated. Lawson decided to undergo shoulder surgery, and the team still has not put any timeframe on when he might return. Lawson isn’t expected to be ready for the season opener, and after missing all of spring practices and training camp, he will have a lot of catching up to do when his rookie season does begin.
That leaves a gaping hole in the Bills’ starting lineup. Veteran Manny Lawson is most likely to get the first crack at replacing Shaq Lawson. Manny Lawson is a trusted veteran who has superior football intelligence. But he never has been much of a pass-rush option. Manny Lawson has just 24.5 sacks in 143 career games and only 2.5 over the past two years in Buffalo.
That’s not enough for a team that finished last season with just 21 sacks, a franchise low since the stat started being tracked in 1982. That’s after a two-season stretch with 111 sacks, which led the NFL over that time.
Coach Rex Ryan’s defenses with the New York Jets averaged 37 sacks a season. Getting to that number would be a big improvement for the Bills. So how do they get there?
It starts with Hughes having a bounce-back season. After a combined 20 sacks in 2013-14, his total dropped to 5.5 last year. He played through a chipped bone in his left wrist for almost the entire season after suffering the injury in Week Two.
“I’m not going to make any excuses when I’m out there on the field,” Hughes said. “I’m healthy. I’m good to go.”
Hughes still is listed as a defensive end on the roster but is expected to play outside linebacker. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Bills move him around in search of favorable matchups.
“Whatever the coach needs me to do, we’re going to do it,” he said. “That’s why we bought into the system, we’re all for it, because we understand the complexity that a Rex Ryan defense can have. I mean, I grew up, we watched him in playoff games, AFC Championship games, things of that nature, so we know the schematic things that he can put out there that can really mess with a quarterback’s mind. So we’re all into the system because we want to be the best that we can.”
It’s worth noting that sack totals alone don’t define a successful defense. As Hughes suggested, deception is what Ryan’s scheme is all about. Making an opposing offense guess where the pass rush is coming from is great, but the threat of actually getting to the quarterback has to be there.
That’s why IK Enemkpali will have a big opportunity in training camp to earn playing time. After a lackluster first season with the Bills, Enemkpali got good reviews during spring practices. If Ryan determines Manny Lawson isn’t giving them enough as a pass rusher – or is needed elsewhere – Enemkpali would be next in line.
“Absolutely he could do that with Shaq being on the shelf. Yeah, no doubt,” Ryan said. “Like I’ve always said ... Manny can be a catch-all for this team. Outside. Inside. Wherever. You can always play him.
“But IK’s done really well. ... We’re bumping guys around and stuff but, yeah, he’ll have a chance. IK is a physical player. He’s doing a much better job in his pass-coverage responsibility. So I could definitely see him pushing for playing time, without question.”
There promises to be other changes to the defensive front seven, as well. Third-round draft pick Adolphus Washington had 8.5 sacks in his final 26 starts. He joins Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams along the defensive line. Dareus and Williams each had 10-sack seasons in 2014, but combined for just three last year.
As always, expect Ryan to cook up some new blitzes, too, in an effort to get to the opposing quarterback.