Buffalo Bills Free Agency Targets Part IV: Pass Rushers

The Buffalo Bills hired former New York Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to the same position at season’s end. Pettine’s defense is primarily a 3-4, but utilizes a variety of formations and looks designed to pressure and attack opposing offenses. While former defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt wanted his defenses to sit back and react to what offenses were doing, Pettine wants his defense to take charge and dictate what offenses do.

The first way Pettine wants to control offenses is by bringing pressure. He did this with the Baltimore Ravens using outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, and most recently with the New York Jets with Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas. In 2012, the Jets’ sack leaders, Muhammed Wilkerson and Quinton Coples, rushed the passer from the 3-4 defensive end position, or the five-technique. This position is generally required to take up space, occupy blockers, and allow the linebackers to make plays. However, Pettine wanted his five-techniques to attack, due to not having a true pass-rushing linebacker.

According to ProFootballFocus, the Jets utilized a three-man front exactly 50 percent of the time, but used four linebackers only 46 percent of their defensive snaps.

The Bills gave a huge contract to Mario Williams last offseason, and fans are worrying that he’ll be misused by playing 3-4 outside linebacker. However, given that he’s nearly 300 pounds and defends the run very well, he’s a better fit for the five-technique. The Bills need a true pass rusher for this defense to be truly effective, but Pettine’s defenses call for more of a stand up defensive end, rather than a traditional 3-4 pass rusher. Thankfully, the 2013 free agent class is loaded with players that can get after the quarterback.

4-3 Defensive Ends and 3-4 Outside Linebackers were combined into “Pass Rushers”

Michael Bennett recorded 41 tackles, 9 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles in 2012. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Michael Bennett recorded 41 tackles, 9 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles in 2012. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Michael Bennett, 27, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Michael Bennett is an intriguing prospect for the Buffalo Bills to consider. The 6’4” 274 pound defensive end has the versatility to rush the passer from the strong-side defensive end position, in addition to the defensive tackle position. Undrafted out of Texas A&M in 2009, Bennett finally caught on with the Buccaneers as a starter in 2011, and had a great 2012 campaign. This year, he recorded 41 tackles and nine sacks, while forcing three fumbles. Bennett generated the 6th most pressures of all 4-3 defensive ends, with 71, and was the 10th most productive pass rusher, as he generated a pressure once every 9.8 snaps. Bennett also showed that he was capable of defending the run, as he made 29 “stops.” Bennett is a better fit for the 4-3 defense, but his versatility that allows him to kick inside to defensive tackle could intrigue the Bills’ coaching staff.

Anthony Spencer, 29, Dallas Cowboys

Anthony Spencer has been overshadowed by DeMarcus Ware for his six seasons with the Cowboys, but he’s been a very productive player in that time. The 6’3” 250 pound outside linebacker earned a Pro Bowl nod this season after playing out the year under the franchise tag. He was the only player in the National Football League to record over 90 tackles and 10+ sacks, but his impact went far beyond the stat sheet. Spencer was the best run defender among 3-4 outside linebackers according to ProFootballFocus, as the former Purdue standout recorded 56 stops in 350 run snaps. He was the 5th most productive pass rusher from the 3-4 outside linebacker position, as he generated a pressure in 40 of his 299 pass rushes from the left outside linebacker spot. Spencer fits what Mike Pettine likes to do on defense, and his ability to defend the run will attract many suitors in free agency. With the Dallas Cowboys’ salary cap issues, it’s almost a certainty that Spencer will be playing the 2013 season in a new uniform.

Michael Johnson, 26, Cincinnati Bengals

Michael Johnson is the most attractive physical specimen for the Buffalo Bills. At 6’7” and 260 pounds, the former third-round pick out of Georgia Tech has the size and athleticism necessary to play defensive end in a four-man front, or stand up to rush the passer in a 3-4. He’s been slowly brought along with the Bengals since coming into the league in 2009, and finally had a major impact in 2012, recording 52 tackles, 11.5 sacks, and intercepting a pass. Johnson was ProFootballFocus’ 6th ranked 4-3 defensive end in Pass Rush Productivity, as he generated 55 pressures; once every 8.8 snaps. Johnson’s youth, athletic ability, and skill make him a great candidate for the Bills’ new Hybrid defense.

Paul Kruger, 26, Baltimore Ravens

Paul Kruger is the hottest name of the pass rushers set to hit free agency in March, as the 6’4” 270 pounder recorded 42 tackles and nine sacks, while defending six passes and forcing a fumble in 15 contests during the 2012 season. Kruger really became a big part of what the Ravens did on defense this year during their Super Bowl run, and despite playing 1,068 snaps, rookie Courtney Upshaw began to cut into his playing time as the year went on. Kruger excelled in rushing the passer, creating 55 pressures in just 359 pass rush attempts. However, he struggled to defend the run, and winded up ranking as ProFootballFocus’ 25th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in that aspect of the game. Furthermore, his tackling was an issue. Kruger missed nine tackles, and ranked 34th among 3-4 outside linebackers in Tackling Efficiency, as he whiffed once every 4.6 attempts to take down the ball-carrier.

Interesting sack dance aside, Paul Kruger struggled against the run in 2012. (GIF swiped from BusinessInsider.com)
Interesting sack dance aside, Paul Kruger struggled against the run in 2012.
(GIF swiped from BusinessInsider.com)

Lawrence Jackson, 27, Detroit Lions

Lawrence Jackson is a former first round draft pick of the Seattle Seahawks in 28, after he record 30.5 sacks as a four-year starter with the USC Trojans. However, Jackson has failed to meet expectations, and has recorded just 19.5 sacks in 69 career games. At 6’4” and 270 pounds, Jackson might be a better fit for the 4-3 defense, but he wouldn’t exactly “break the bank” to bring in either. He has a nice skill set and youth going for him, and he began to produce when he joined the Detroit Lions.

Connor Barwin, 26, Houston Texans

Connor Barwin was drafted in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft out of Cincinnati, but didn’t make an impact until 2011, when the Texans shifted to a 3-4 defense. Barwin racked up 47 tackles, 11.5 sacks and defended seven passes as a 3-4 outside linebacker in 2011, making Mario Williams and his hefty contract demands expendable. However, Barwin saw a big drop off in production during the 2012 season, recording just three sacks and 44 tackles. His 40 pressures in 533 pass rushes landed him as the 27th ranked pass rushing linebacker in the National Football League. Barwin really doesn’t offer much in terms of run support either, ranking 29th in Run Stop Percentage, according to ProFootballFocus. Barwin is strictly a pass rusher, and at 6’4” 260 pounds, he doesn’t have the versatility to put his hand in the ground in a four-man front. He’s going to command a big contract, and might not fit what the Bills want to do.

Could the Buddy Nix / San Diego connection bring in another former Charger in Shaun Phillips? (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Could the Buddy Nix / San Diego connection bring in another former Charger in Shaun Phillips? (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Shaun Phillips, 31, San Diego Chargers

Despite Phillips’ age, I included him in this list due to his connection to Buddy Nix. Nix worked with the Chargers when Phillips was drafted in the fourth round of the 2004 NFL Draft. Phillips has been an extremely productive player during his nine-year career, recording 473 tackles, 69.5 sacks, 20 forced fumbles, and six interceptions. Phillips still continues to make an impact as a pass rusher, despite his increasing age, as he recorded 9.5 sacks and 50 tackles in 2012. However, he’s never been an above-average run defender, which will really hurt his value in this strong free agent class of pass rushers.

Erik Walden, 27, Green Bay Packers

Erik Walden spent time with the Dallas Cowboys, Kansas City Chiefs, and the Miami Dolphins before he finally found a role with the Green Bay Packers in 2010. Walden has been brought along as a situational pass rusher, before finally earning significant playing time this past season. Walden played 883 snaps at left outside linebacker, and recorded 4 tackles, four sacks and two interceptions. The 6’2” 250 pound linebacker generated just 30 pressures, but he graded as the 6th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in terms of run defense. Furthermore, Walden is a sure tackler, missing a tackle just once per 21.5 attempts, good for 10th at his position. Walden would be a relatively inexpensive addition to a weak linebacking corps, and is a great fit for the strong-side linebacker position in the 3-4.