The Buffalo Bills continued the overhaul of their weakest positional unit from last season by trading linebacker Kelvin Sheppard on Monday.
Sheppard was shipped to Indianapolis in return for Jerry Hughes – a former No. 1 draft choice who the Bills think offers more versatility.
Hughes is a 6-foot-2, 253-pounder who entered the NFL as a speedy, undersized edge-rushing prospect. In his last two seasons at Texas Christian University, he had 26.5 sacks, 36 tackles for loss and eight forced fumbles.
All that havoc has not translated to the NFL. Playing behind standout defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, Hughes started just seven games in three seasons and managed only five sacks.
Bills General Manager Buddy Nix thinks Hughes can fit a couple of roles on the defense of coordinator Mike Pettine.
“We think this defense and the way they’re going to play him will fit what he does best,” Nix said. “He was a defensive end at TCU. Played with his hand on the ground. Did that at first with the Colts and then when they went to the 3-4, he played a little bit of both. But he played behind Robert and Dwight Freeney, so playing time wasn’t a lot. We think this will give him an opportunity to do what he does best.”
Nix also sees Hughes as potential insurance behind starting strongside – or Sam – linebacker Manny Lawson.
“For sure, we think he can fit at the rush and at Sam linebacker,” Nix said. “We think he can swing two positions there and then be a rusher in sub packages. Again, versatility is something we’re looking for. We want our linebackers to at least be able to play both outside spots. We’d like our middle backers to have the ability to play Will or Mike. So that really was enticing about Jerry.”
That was the rub for Sheppard, strictly a middle (or Mike) linebacker. Sheppard does not fit the weakside (or Will) spot.
Hughes was drafted 26th overall in 2010, and Nix said Bills’ scouts liked him.
“We had high grades on him,” Nix said. “We had him right where he was taken, really.”
Hughes played very little his first two seasons – about 10 percent of the Colts’ defensive snaps. Last year he played about 55 percent of the snaps and started six games due to alternating injuries to Mathis and Freeney. He made four sacks. But he has no forced fumbles or fumble recoveries in his career, and the Colts were not satisfied with the production.
Nevertheless, another reserve edge-rushing prospect, especially one with Hughes’ speed, is a welcome addition. The Bills can use somebody to contribute a little off the edge behind Mario Williams, Mark Anderson and Lawson.
Sheppard was a third-round pick in 2011 and started the past season and a half. He has a stout frame, and he ranked third on the team last season with 77 tackles. However, Sheppard didn’t make a lot of big hits or difference-making plays. Sheppard has no forced fumbles, fumble recoveries or interceptions in two seasons.
The Bills ranked 31st in the NFL against the run last season, although Sheppard was only one small part of that failure. The run defense was ill-prepared to start the season and had to go back into training-camp mode after the fifth week of the season to try to shore up the defensive run fits.
Also gone from last year’s starting linebacking corps is Nick Barnett, who was released.
The Colts can use some security at inside linebacker, because starter Pat Angerer had a second surgery in January to repair a broken foot.
Asked if a change of scenery might benefit both players, Nix said: “It could work out like that and I hope it does. Kelvin did a good job for us and hopefully it will work out good for him and I think it will.”
Tennessee Tech receiver Da’Rick Rogers and Washington State quarterback Jeff Tuel headlined the list of undrafted rookie free agents signed by the Bills. The team released the names of 16 rookie signees.
They also include: guard Zack Chibane of Syracuse, center Ryan Turnley of Pittsburgh, running back Kendall Gaskins of Richmond, fullback Drew Smith of Albany, receivers Brandon Kaufman of Eastern Washington and Kevin Norrell of Stony Brook, linebacker Keith Pough of Howard, defensive end Izaan Cross of Georgia Tech, defensive tackle Aaron Tipoti of California, defensive back Jordan Dangerfield of Towson, cornerbacks Nickell Robey of Southern Cal, Kip Edwards of Missouri, Jumal Rolle of Catawba and Vernon Kearney of Lane.
The Bills released quarterback Aaron Corp, tackle Adam Grant, tight end Joe Sawyer and kicker Chris Koepplin.