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Importance of pass rushers dries up free-agent pool along defensive line

(This is the third in a series on the Buffalo Bills’ key needs entering NFL free agency. The first installment focused on wide receivers, while the second looked at the offensive line.)

The free-agent market for edge rushers took a nosedive this week.

The importance of rushing the passer in today’s NFL is unmistakable, as five teams used the franchise tag on players who get after the quarterback: Dallas (DeMarcus Lawrence), Atlanta (Grady Jarrett), Houston (Jadeveon Clowney), Kansas City (Dee Ford) and Seattle (Frank Clark).

The Buffalo Bills did not figure to be shopping for any of the above should they have made it to the open market, because their price tag will soar far beyond what General Manager Brandon Beane is likely willing to play.

That leaves the defensive line as somewhat of a question mark as the start of free agency nears. The Bills have all four of their defensive ends from last season under contract for 2019: Shaq Lawson, Trent Murphy, Jerry Hughes and Eddie Yarbrough. Complicating matters, though, is that Lawson and Hughes are heading into the final year of their respective options (the Bills have until May to decide whether they want to pick up the fifth-year option on Lawson’s deal). Murphy battled through injuries last year, while Yarbrough’s production dwindled to the point he was made a healthy inactive for the season finale. So it wouldn’t be a shock to see the team look to add some competition, but not in the form of a high-priced free agent.

The situation is similar at defensive tackle, where three of the four players from last year’s roster return. Star Lotulelei, Harrison Phillips and recently re-signed Jordan Phillips are back in the fold, with only the retired Kyle Williams not around. Jordan Phillips signed a one-year contract worth $4.5 million this week, an investment that shows the Bills believe he will be in the mix for a starting job, even if it’s not guaranteed.

Why 'Buffalo feels like home' for DT Jordan Phillips

Still, with an open roster spot after Williams’ retirement, a defensive tackle could be on Beane’s free-agent shopping list.

The top options on the interior are the Los Angeles Rams’ Ndamukong Suh and Minnesota’s Sheldon Richardson, but both of them figure to be well out of the Bills’ price range. Instead, it seems more likely the Bills would focus on someone like the Chargers’ Darius Philon. The 2015 sixth-round draft pick had four sacks in 2018, making 50 tackles (including eight for loss) and five passes defensed. He could replace Lotulelei on passing downs.

If the Bills are looking for more of a run plugger, New England’s Danny Shelton makes sense. He’s never come close to living up to his first-round draft status, but did carve out a role for the Super Bowl champions. Shelton may want to sign a one-year, prove-it contract in hopes of getting a bigger pay day next offseason. There’s also the bonus of weakening the Patriots, even if that impact is minimal.

The depleted market for edge rushers still has a few big fish, starting with the Patriots’ Trey Flowers. It’s estimated he could get up to $17 million per season, so don’t count on the Bills being in hot pursuit.

Baltimore’s Za’Darius Smith is a defensive end/linebacker who racked up 60 total pressures in 2018, according to analytics website Pro Football Focus.

“Za’Darious is tenacious,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said at the NFL Scouting Combine. “He brings it, man. He’s a high-energy pass rusher. He can line up at any one of the four spots and he can bring it. He can blitz, he can drop as an outside ’backer. Very versatile player, but more than anything, I just love his intensity level.”

Detroit’s Ziggy Ansah had 48 sacks in six seasons with the Lions, but played just seven games in 2018 because of a shoulder injury.

“Ziggy obviously had a little bit more of a serious injury toward midseason, so that’s probably more of a medical conversation than anything else right now,” Lions GM Bob Quinn said, somewhat ominously, at the combine. “I don’t have those answers.”

Even with that being true, Ansah might still be out of the Bills’ price range given the market for pass rushers.

A pair of former first-round draft picks in Atlanta’s Bruce Irvin and the Rams’ Dante Fowler Jr. might also be out of the Bills’ price range given their pedigrees.

So where does that leave Beane and Co.? One intriguing option – even if it’s for the short term – would be Miami’s Cameron Wake. The Dolphins don’t appear to be interested in re-signing the 37-year-old, choosing instead to enter into a rebuild. Don’t let Wake’s age sway you, though. As a situation pass rusher, he can still be an effective player. The same goes for Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs.

A report from CBS Sports last week said there is a real possibility Suggs leaves the only franchise he’s played for since being a first-round draft pick in 2003. Entering his 16th season, Suggs had seven sacks last season and has 18 over the previous two years. His 132.5 career sacks ranks 13th all time, and he needs just five more to enter the top 10.

Both Wake and Suggs would be short-term fixes, but they would add to the Bills’ pass rush.

A look at the top defensive line free agents:

Player                    Team        Pos.    Ht.   Wt.   Age

Trey Flowers     New England     DE         6-2         265        26
Ndamukong Suh              L.A. Rams           DT         6-4         313        32
Sheldon Richardson       Minnesota         DT         6-3         295        28
Ezekiel Ansah    Detroit  DE         6-5         275        30
Za’Darius Smith Baltimore           DE         6-4         272        26
Dante Fowler Jr.              L.A. Rams           DE         6-3         255
Henry Anderson              N.Y. Jets              DE         6-6         301        28
Tim Jernigan      Philadelphia      DT         6-2         295        26
Alex Okafor        New Orleans     DE         6-4         261        28
Cameron Wake Miami   DE         6-3         263        37

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