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Jerry Sullivan: Bills DE Jerry Hughes has a lot to prove, and he knows it

Jerry Hughes spoke rapidly, repeating his words to acknowledge the more painful realities. Of course, he feels he has something to prove this season.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," the Bills' veteran defensive end said Thursday after voluntary workouts at One Bills Drive. "Certainly, certainly. I go out there every year with something to prove.

"It's not just from the money aspect, but to see where I rank among some of the top guys in the league -- defensive ends, outside linebackers, I rate them in one category. We all want to be the best. That's why I put in the work in the offseason. So I come in with a chip on my shoulder."

It's a pretty expensive chip he's carrying around. Hughes counts $10.45 million against the salary cap this season. That makes him the third-highest paid player on the Bills roster this season, behind defensive tackle Marcell Dareus and offensive tackle Cordy Glenn.

Hughes knows what the critics say. He was given a five-year, $45 million deal after a terrific two-year run in 2013-14, when he collected 19.5 sacks for a defense that was, statistically, the best pass rush in team history.

Then, as has been well-chronicled, Rex Ryan came to town boasting that he would make the defense even better. He made a mess of it, trying to force players into unfamiliar roles and losing the faith of his key players.

Hughes had 11 sacks over the last two seasons. He had two over the last dozen games a year ago. He was virtually invisible at times on a unit that struggled against the run, melted against the better quarterbacks, and allowed 31 points a game in its nine losses.

So as Hughes looks ahead to his eighth NFL season, the question lingers: Is he a good player who got overpaid for a bunch of sacks, a prime example of a bloated Bills salary structure, or a dynamic defensive force whose talent was misused during the Ryan era?

Doug Whaley patted himself on the back during a national interview early this week for leaving the Bills the "gift" of two 2018 draft picks. He also gifted the new regime with some burdensome contracts -- with a big assist from cap man Jim Overdorf.

Jerry Sullivan: Doug Whaley left some dubious 'gifts' behind

The defensive production didn't come close to justifying the financial outlay under Ryan. At times last season, when they gave up head-spinning scoring runs and allowed three 200-yard rushers, it was an utter embarrassment.

"Certainly, certainly," Hughes said, "because in past years we were able to play at such a high level. Kind of taking a few steps back, it hurt me, it hurt us in the locker room."

It became convenient to lay the blame at Ryan's feet, and he surely deserves a major share. But the players no longer have Rex and his convoluted 3-4 schemes as an excuse. In Sean McDermott, they have a new, defensive-minded head coach who has arrived to restore the unit back to respectability.

"I don't think we have anything to prove," said linebacker Lorenzo Alexander. "Obviously, we weren't happy with the way we finished the season. We didn't play top notch-ball. But at the end of the day, this is a new team. If you look at our roster from the top down, it's all new faces."

Well, that's not entirely true. I still see three veterans on the defensive line -- Hughes, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams -- who count for a combined $35 million against the salary cap.

At $8.3 million and 34 years old (in two weeks), Williams was seen as a potential cap casualty. But McDermott, who says he's striking a 50-50 balance between winning now and building for the future, wanted him around to help make a run this year.

Optimism abounds at One Bills Drive, always the case in May. Everyone is happy and looking good. McDermott said Dareus is "buying in." Hughes is spouting McDermott's mantra -- "Iron sharpens iron" -- and says the new coach is doing a fabulous job.

They say a team reflects its coach, and the Bills were too often a reflection of Ryan, slipshod and easily unhinged. Hughes was among the worst offenders. He had 22 penalties the last two seasons, including at least six unsportsmanlike or roughness calls.

Hughes said McDermott will run a tighter ship, insisting on discipline, fundamentals and emotional equanimity. He said the new coach has shown the players on film how a loss of composure can hurt a team in critical, late-game situations.

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"I know this," McDermott said Thursday. "The margin of winning in the NFL is so small that you can't beat yourself. That speaks to pre-snap penalties, post-snap penalties, discipline, accountability ... We spent a lot of time emphasizing that through the different avenues that we teach."

Ultimately, it's about talent in the NFL. The Bills aren't deep, so they will need their presumed stars to perform at an elite level. The defensive veterans are happy to be back in a 4-3. They all talked about the virtues of a simpler defensive approach.

"It's a little more black and white, a little simpler," Alexander said. "There's less thinking in a sense, so you can line up and play fast."

The Bills' first preseason game is 11 weeks from Thursday, on Aug. 10. Hughes turns 29 three days later. He's entering his late prime and is eager to proving he's the pass rushing terror he was his first two years in town.

"Oh, absolutely," Hughes said. "I'm excited to start the next season, but also to go out there with a defense that everybody can be comfortable in, where we all understand the ins and outs, so that way we can all go out there and execute it at a very top speed."

So he wasn't comfortable in Ryan's defense. "Yeah, that would be the best way to put it. I wasn't comfortable. A lot of people weren't comfortable."

A cynic might suggest that the big money made some of the defensive players too comfortable. We'll find out in time how much of it was coaching. Everything looks rosy now, but you prove nothing in May.

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