After the scouting combine and NFL Draft was over the Buffalo Bills made one final roster transaction by sending their former third round pick, linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, to the Indianapolis Colts for former first round pick defensive end Jerry Hughes. Some questioned why the Bills would make a move that would send a solid and productive linebacker in Sheppard for an underperforming tweener like Hughes. The answer is simple, pass rush talent.
Hughes was a first round pick because of his productivity and talent to sack the quarterback while in college at Texas Christian University. A finalist for the Bronko Nagurski award in his senior year, he lead the Horned Frogs in sacks and tackles for loss. His physical skills showed top tier talent and his game tape showed pass rush skills that few in his class had. He was considered one of the better rush linebackers for a 3-4 defense, or a slightly undersized defensive end for a 4-3. He came into the 2010 draft with over two years of noted college production. That, coupled with solid showings at the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine, helped make him the 31st overall selection by the Indianapolis Colts.
What went wrong for Hughes in Indianapolis can be explained a multitude of ways. In college, Hughes was a hand-on-the-ground 4-3 end, which the Colts used him as, to spell Pro Bowlers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis in his first two years. But it is hard to see snaps with two Pro Bowl players already in your way. That lack of playing time and his inability to hold the point of attack against the run hindered him on the field and his overall confidence.
When new coach Chuck Pagano came in, it looked to breathe life back into Hughes’ promise. Hughes could fit the speed rusher role that Pagano used Paul Kruger for in Baltimore in the new 3-4 defense Indianapolis was set to install, but again lack of playing time seemed to stunt him early. When Robert Mathis went down with an injury in week six, Hughes was then able to see the field; and with that increased playing time, he was able to total 41 tackles and four sacks to close out his most productive season in Indy.
Now Hughes looks to continue this upswing in defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s attacking 3-4 hybrid defense. The learning curve for Hughes shouldn’t be a steep one as both Pagano and Pettine were coordinators together with the Ravens under then-coordinator Rex Ryan. In all, both Indy’s and now Buffalo’s defensive playbook should carry similar verbiage and schemes which will give Hughes that much of a leg up on his competition. Furthermore, Pettine should understand from the game tape that Hughes possesses the versatility he craves in players as he can fill the role of weakside pass rusher when in a 3-4 alignment, as well as play a traditional hand-on-the-ground end in a 4-3 alignment in 3rd and long situations. Hughes has the natural physical skills and talent to be an eight plus sack performer in the NFL.
The Bills defense is a complete blank canvas with only a few positions locked down by players. Hughes can paint his own role with the team without the prejudice of poor performances from his time in Indianapolis. If he becomes the sack artist his talent shows he can be, then Hughes can start to chip away at the draft bust label he has been given thus far.