The Philadelphia Eagles are in the market for pass rushing outside linebacker. This much has become obvious during the 2014 offseason. In free agency, the Eagles were rumored to be interest in Jason Worilds. He was retained by the Steelers before he could ever hit the open market. The Eagles were also interested in former Bengals 4-3 defensive end Michael Johnson. Johnson was too expensive for their taste and ended up signing with the 4-3 Buccaneers. Beyond the top names, the free agent market for 3-4 outside linebackers wasn't very strong. So the Eagles reportedly explored their trade options and offered Brandon Graham and a second round pick to the Dolphins for DE/OLB Dion Jordan. The report mentioned that the Dolphins wanted a first round pick, however, and it seems like the Eagles don't want to part with their selection at No. 22 overall.
It remains to be seen if the Eagles can find a pass rusher in the draft. The top prospects (Jadeveon Clowney, Khalil Mack) will already be off the board by the time the Eagles pick. Even if UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr does fall to No. 22, which I'm not so sure will happen, he's still a bit of a project. Otherwise the Eagles will likely look into taking a pass rusher in later rounds. It's fair to question the kind of impact a late round pass rusher will produce.
Therefore, the best solution for the Eagles could be to consider the trade market again. Forget Dion Jordan for a moment. I have a different trade target in mind that I haven't seen others suggest before: Bills linebacker Jerry Hughes. Let me make this clear: the Bills have shown no indication of trading Hughes. I have no inside information here. I'm just entertaining a fun hypothetical that seems to make sense.
The reason why I suggest Hughes as a target is because the Bills are moving back to the 4-3 defense under former Lions head coach and current Bills defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. Schwartz is infamous for his 4-3 Wide 9 front. My thinking is that Hughes might not be the best fit in their new scheme. Don't just take my word for it. Look what Brian Galliford of Buffalo Rumblings (SB Nation Bills' blog) had to say.
Jerry Hughes is less proven than [Mario] Williams, but was the more reliable pass rusher for the Bills last season, picking up 10 sacks on nearly 400 fewer snaps than his counterpart. That playing time disparity is cause for concern; Hughes was a package-specific, passing-downs-only player under previous coordinator Mike Pettine, and while he has tremendous value to the team as a pass rusher, it might be unwise for the team to consider giving him an expanded role, as he does not have the look of a consistent, quality run defender from a three-point stance.
Hughes, formerly the No. 31 overall pick in 2010, was a bust as a 4-3 DE for the Colts. He spent 3 years in Indy and managed to start only 7 games (40 games played) while recording 5 sacks and 31 tackles. Buffalo acquired Hughes from the Colts in exchange for Kelvin Shepard during the 2013 offseason. Hughes really excelled as an edge rusher in the Bills 3-4 defense.
According to Pro Football Focus, Hughes finished his 2013 campaign with 11 sacks, 9 QB hits, and 39 QB hurries (59 total pressures) in only 621 snaps played. Those numbers look even more impressive when you consider Hughes was marked down for 305 pass rush snaps. Hughes finished first among NFL 3-4 OLBs in PFF's "Pass Rush Productivity" (PRP) stat, which is a formula that combines sacks, hits, and hurries relative to how many times a player rushes the passer. Hughes has clearly been more productive as a 3-4 edge rusher than a 4-3 defensive end.
Speaking of miscast defensive personnel, I happen to recall a certain Eagles pass rusher who excelled in a 4-3 Wide 9 defense but doesn't appear for be a great fit for the Eagles' current 3-4. I'm talking about Brandon Graham, of course. As a 4-3 Wide 9 defensive end in 2012, Graham finished as the top 4-3 DE in PFF's PRP stat. He recorded 7 sacks, 7 QB hits, and 31 QB hurries (45 total pressures) in just 206 pass rushing snaps.
While it's possible the Eagles don't intend to trade Graham, it seems more likely that he's not long for their roster. Graham is essentially in the last year of his current deal because the 2015 year is set to void. Graham is only scheduled to make ~$3.4 million this year so Buffalo can afford him. Hughes, who was also drafted in 2010, is also in the last year of his deal. He's scheduled to make ~$4 million in 2014 and the Bills wouldn't be on the hook for any dead money.
The trade proposal seems obvious: Graham for Hughes straight up. Each team gets a player better suited for their current defensive system. Graham could be a starter for Buffalo or at the very least add some high quality depth. Hughes could rotate with Trent Cole off the bench and potentially be a future starter.
Even if Hughes (or the aforementioned Dion Jordan) isn't in the cards for the Eagles, the front office should still be looking to capitalize on scheme causalities elsewhere. A number of teams around the league switch defensive styles on a yearly basis. I don't have anyone else specific in mind but I'm sure there are potential targets out there.
If the Eagles are unsuccessful in landing a pass rusher through trade, it likely means Trent Cole and Connor Barwin will once again be the major contributors at outside linebacker. In 2013, Cole got off to a slow start but finished hot down the stretch. Barwin proved to be a jack-of-all-trades as opposed to a feared pass rusher.
It's clear that the Eagles pass rush needs to get better. It's just not clear as to how the Eagles will actually make that happen. Getting creative in a trade could be the team's best option.