New Buffalo Bills linebacker Jerry Hughes produced 26.5 sacks, 36 tackles for loss and eight forced fumbles in his last two years at Texas Christian University.
Over the past three years for the Indianapolis Colts, he managed five sacks, eight tackles for loss and no forced fumbles.
He says he has not forgotten how to play like the man who terrorized offenses at TCU.
“Absolutely, I’m still the same guy,” Hughes said after the Bills’ practice on Wednesday. “If anything, those first two years in Indy gave me the chance to rest up and learn. So now I’m an eager, fresh, hungry, 24-year-old, ready to get out there and get playing football.”
Hughes has a fresh start after being traded two weeks ago for Bills middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard.
The Bills could use some of Hughes’ old form, because they do not have a surplus of proven pass rushers. Mario Williams and Mark Anderson are the Bills’ main threats off the edge. Williams had 10.5 sacks last season. Mark Anderson is back after making only five starts last year due to injury. He had 10 sacks in 2011 and has 36.5 for his career.
After them, the Bills’ depth is questionable. Starting strong-side linebacker Manny Lawson has pass-rush skills. But he has averaged only three sacks a year over six full seasons in the NFL. Despite his limited production, Hughes is the Bills’ next best credentialed edge rusher.
Buffalo ranked 13th in sacks per pass play last season, but that figure was misleading. The Bills did not get enough pressure on the QB, as evidenced by the fact they ranked 31st on third-down defense.
So production from Hughes would be welcome.
After being drafted 31st overall in 2010, Hughes saw almost no playing time his first two seasons. He was stuck behind the Colts’ two Pro Bowl defensive ends, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
The Colts switched from a 4-3 front to a 3-4 scheme last season, which prompted Hughes to be moved to outside linebacker, a position he never had played. Freeney and Mathis both missed some time. Hughes played about 55 percent of the snaps.
He finished with four sacks and unofficially had 17 quarterback hurries, according to Profootballfocus.com. (The Bills’ Williams, by comparison, had 38 hurries). The Colts decided he was a disappointment and drafted an edge rusher, Bjorn Werner, in the first round last month. They made the trade two days after the draft.
“It definitely caught me off guard,” said Hughes, who was informed of the deal by Colts General Manager Ryan Grigson. “I didn’t know anything about it. We worked out that morning. Grigson pulled me into his office and let me know the news. I said thank you for the opportunity and I caught the next flight out that night.”
Hughes thinks he can build off the playing time he got last season.
“I look at last year as a rookie season for me,” he said. “It was my first time playing a full NFL season. It’s definitely a confidence builder. Now I can take that. I know what to look for. I know more of the game. … You learn a lot more playing versus watching.”
Hughes, 6-foot-2 and 254 pounds, was viewed as a “tweener” coming out of college, a little light to hold the point of attack as a 4-3 defensive end but with no experience to drop into coverage as a 3-4 linebacker.
He says last season was good training for making the transition to outside ‘backer in the Bills’ 3-4 front.
“Absolutely, it prepped me for here, so it’s not a deer in the headlights look when I’m back there communicating with the DBs and linebackers,” he said. “I’m able to make that transition better. … It’s nothing I can’t do. I’ve been in space. It’s about going out there and playing football.”
In a perfect Bills world, Williams and Lawson play well and stay healthy, and Hughes contributes as a part-time rusher in passing situations. That’s presuming he builds off last season and wins a roster spot.
Hughes, a Houston native, doesn’t know a lot about Buffalo or the Bills yet, but he’s glad to be somewhere he’s wanted.
“Being from Houston, I know Buffalo has the greatest comeback in NFL history,” Hughes said. “I know very little about Buffalo, but the times I’ve been up here the past two weeks have been great. We have a long way to go but we’re taking the right steps to get there.”
Second-round draft pick Kiko Alonso, the linebacker from the University of Oregon, signed a contract with the Bills. The four-year deal is expected to be worth $1.1 million a year. Alonso becomes the sixth of the Bills’ eighth draft picks to sign. The remaining unsigned picks are first-rounder EJ Manuel and Robert Woods, who was taken in the second round five picks ahead of Alonso.
Alonso, 6-foot-3 and 238 pounds, has a chance to start right away in the middle of the Bills’ defense. In the 3-4 front, Nigel Bradham is one starting inside linebacker. The other spot is open. Alonso started 17 of 36 games for Oregon. As a senior, he had 81 tackles in 12 starts.