PITTSFORD — Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone says he has plenty of pass-rushing options beyond star defensive end Mario Williams.
Watching for young players to emerge as edge-rushing threats will be one of the key developments of Bills training camp.
The Bills are counting on somebody to step up in the wake of their release this week of veteran Mark Anderson, who did little for the Bills last season but had some sack production in the NFL.
His departure clears the way for Jerry Hughes, Manny Lawson, Jamie Blatnick, Kourtnei Brown and others to claim a key role in pass-rushing situations.
“We feel we have some good young players there with Jerry Hughes, Blatnick, also with Brown,” Marrone said Saturday. “We feel very confident with how that position’s going to develop, and we’re excited for all those guys.”
The Bills hold their first practice at 6 this evening at St. John Fisher College.
Williams led the Bills with 10.5 sacks last season. None of the team’s other edge rushers have proven they can effectively get sacks in the NFL.
Lawson is the prospective starting left outside linebacker in the Bills’ new 3-4 defense. He has 18 career sacks in six full NFL seasons, an average of three a year. The Bills need him to set the edge against the run and provide some capable coverage this year. Lawson has filled a variety of roles in his tenure with the 49ers and the Bengals. He could come off the field in obvious passing situations with the Bills.
Hughes, acquired in an offseason trade that sent linebacker Kelvin Sheppard to Indianapolis, seems like the best candidate to emerge as a pass-rushing force. Hughes was the 28th overall pick in the NFL Draft in 2011. He had 26.5 sacks over his last two college seasons at Texas Christian. He didn’t play much his first two seasons with the Colts, who boasted two elite defensive ends in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Hughes played about 55 percent of the snaps last season and managed four sacks.
Hughes looked pretty quick in spring practices with the Bills, but General Manager Doug Whaley said that wasn’t a factor in the release of Anderson.
“No, that wasn’t part of the motivation in releasing Mark,” Whaley said. “But we’re very excited about Jerry. He was a high pick, and we think this fresh start will be good for him and actually be a bonus for us.”
Blatnick had 13.5 sacks as a senior at Oklahoma State in 2011 but went undrafted because he was viewed as a “tweener” — small for defensive end and not ideal for linebacker. He has big hands but his arms are a tad short. The strong-side linebacker spot in the 3-4 defensive scheme, however, might be the best fit for the 6-foot-3, 253-pounder. Blatnick spent part of last season on Denver’s practice squad and was signed by the Bills in April.
Brown, 6-4 and 253, was hindered by injuries in his college career at Clemson and was a backup. He went undrafted and got cut by the 49ers out of training camp last summer. Brown, however, has long arms and better athleticism than his college production suggests. He will get a better chance to make an impression this summer than he would on a lot of other teams.
The Bills also could use undersized Marcus Dowtin as a situational edge rusher. He’s a 6-2, 226-pounder who played three games with the Jets last season.
“We feel pretty good about it,” Whaley said of the edge-rush roster. “We think the competition will make people better and it makes the cream rise to the top. And before Mario was in the league, he didn’t have any sacks. So this is going to give an opportunity for guys to show what they have and maybe they become the next Mario.”
The young cast does not have huge shoes to fill. After Williams, the Bills did not get much out of their edge rushers last season. Kyle Moore got five sacks, Chris Kelsay two, Anderson one and Shawne Merriman one. All those players are gone.