Under pressure

Which Bills are on the hot seat this season?

Howard Simon
June 11, 2018 - 4:27 pm

Photo: Mark Konezny - USA TODAY Sports

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As the Buffalo Bills go into their final week of off season workouts, I will tell you that I have low expectations for the upcoming season. Not 2-14 low, as one national writer recently predicted, but sub .500 record kind of low.

Before you get upset, I had those same expectations last season and they ended up breaking the playoff drought, so hopefully I will be wrong again.

It sure looks like a rebuilding year despite the fact the Bills are coming off a playoff berth. The brain trust of Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott are continuing to put their stamp on this roster and the pair have earned some grace time from the fan base after 2017. There doesn’t appear to be any pressure on them at this point.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t players facing pressure this season. In no particular order, here are some of the Bills who will be on the hot seat this season:

  • Jerry Hughes

What has become of his double digit sack seasons?

Hughes played like a man possessed in his first two years with the Bills after coming over in a trade from Indianapolis. He recorded back-to-back 10-sack campaigns and parlayed that into a big contract, but Hughes’ numbers have been down the last three years. Looking back on it, we thought the drop in production in 2015 (5 sacks) and 2016 (6 sacks) was due to the schemes Rex Ryan was using.

However, the coaching change didn’t make matters better. In fact, in Sean McDermott’s first season, Hughes posted just four sacks, his lowest total since 2012 with the Colts.

Perhaps the addition of Star Lotulelei, who can clog things up in the middle, will benefit Hughes and his fellow edge rushers. At $10.4 million, Hughes has the highest cap number on the Bills this season and will carry the same number in 2019, the final year of his contract. A subpar year, in terms of sacks, could mean Hughes is a cap cut next off season.
 

  • Shaq Lawson

As long as we are talking edge rushers…It's not out of the question Lawson doesn’t even make the opening week roster.

The former first round pick was drafted by former general manager Doug Whaley, and the number of players left from his time in charge has been reduced significantly in the two offseasons since his departure.

Lawson has been good enough against the run, but has not produced in the pass rush. The former Clemson star had just two sacks in his rookie campaign and totaled four last year. Although that was leading the team at the time, Lawson’s season came to an end in early December due to an injury.

Lawson has dropped weight and body fat this off season. He says he is down from 275-pounds to 263, which is the lightest he’s been. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier has praised a “different attitude” from Lawson this spring, but McDermott did say it's time for Lawson to “step up”.

The pressure increased on Lawson the moment the Bills signed defensive end Trent Murphy in free agency. Throw that in with the fact that Beane has no problems making trades during training camp and you can see a scenario where Lawson is not here come opening day in Baltimore.
 

  • Kelvin Benjamin

It's a big year for the Bills' top wide receiver as he enters the final year of his contract. Hopefully (for his sake) Benjamin doesn’t turn out to be this year’s version of Jordan Matthews and hit free agency off an injury-riddled, low statistics season, leaving him with very little bargaining power.

First and foremost, the pressure is on Benjamin to be on the field all season. I give him credit for gutting it out and playing through injuries last year, but he’s got to show he can stay healthy if he wants to get big money on the open market.

The bigger challenge will likely be getting his numbers back up where they were in Carolina since he will be on a Bills offense that could end up near the bottom of the rankings. In 2014 with the Panthers, Benjamin had 73 catches for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns. After missing all of 2015 with an injury, he bounced back just fine in 2016 with 63 receptions for 941 yards and seven scores.

But last year in 14 combined games with the Panthers and Bills, he had career-lows across the board with 48 catches, 692 yards and just 3 touchdowns.
 

  • Zay Jones

As opposed to the previous three players, I don’t think Jones is in jeopardy of not making the team or finding himself as an ex-Bill after the season, but he does face pressure after a bumpy rookie year and a bizarre offseason incident and arrest.

It's not unexpected for rookie receivers to struggle in the NFL, especially those taken outside of Round 1, but it did seem odd that a player who set the record for most career catches in the FCS would have issues with drops. Jones appeared to lack self confidence last season, but maybe that is behind him now.

He had two offseason surgeries, including a recent procedure on a knee, so we will see if that affects how much time he gets in training camp and in preseason games. Who knows what the future holds for Benjamin so a bounce back season for Jones would be a big boost for a below average receiving corps going forward.

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