When the Indianapolis Colts selected linebacker Jerry Hughes out of TCU in the first round in 2010, Hughes' speed and versatility were his most attractive traits. At 6'2" 254 lb. with 4.65 speed, many projected Hughes to move from defensive end (where he played at TCU) to outside linebacker. The Colts had other plans and for two seasons Hughes tried to find success behind Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
Hughes struggled at the position in Indianapolis' 4-3 base defense, but with a new staff in 2012 came a 3-4 defense and a new position for Hughes. As an outside linebacker and subpackage rush player, Hughes played in all 16 games in 2012 and finished with 41 tackles and four sacks. The rapid improvement earned the praise of former Bills and Colts GM Bill Polian.
"Last year, as I watched him in Indianapolis, I really felt that he turned the corner," Polian said. "He became much more assertive. He was flying to the ball. He was doing all of the things we thought he could do when we drafted him. And that's fine. He was in his third year-that's when they should start to contribute. He did a really good job of it. I think the light went on for him, as the saying goes."
Hughes feels that the biggest reason for his turnaround was simply the opportunity to step on the field.
"I think last year the organization gave me an opportunity to play the field," said Hughes. "The first two years I didn't really get too much [time] on the field. If you're not on the field, nobody really knows you. Last year it was a fresh organization and they gave me the opportunity. I just do what I do best and go out there and play football."
Hughes will have even more opportunities in Buffalo, where he is surprised to find himself but excited to get to work.
"Yeah I was surprised [by the trade] but it's in the past," explained Hughes. "I'm not worried about it. I'm looking forward. I'm a Buffalo Bill now."
The 24 year-old says he feels like the new kid at school. That certainly seems to be the case right now, as Hughes took most of his reps Tuesday in organized team activities with the second team as he becomes more acquainted with the new setting.
While he acknowledges transitions are always challenging, Hughes is excited by what he has seen so far.
"Everyone here's been great, from the fans down to the coaching staff to the guys in the locker room and the front office," said Hughes. "Everybody comes in every day with a smile on their face. I've been up here sometimes at 7 a.m. and everyone's treated me well. It's been nothing but love."
The Bills obviously like what they saw from Hughes in 2012, and believe his versatility makes him a better fit for Mike Pettine's hybrid 3-4 defense than 2011 third-rounder Kelvin Sheppard, who was sent to Indianapolis in the deal.
"Versatility is something we're looking for and we'd like our linebackers to at least be able to play both outside spots and we'd like our middle backer to have the ability to play WILL or MIKE so that was enticing about Jerry," said Buddy Nix when the trade was announced.
In addition to his ability to play multiple roles, the former first-rounder believes his speed and high motor will lead even more on-field success in Buffalo.
"Just by the way I play football," Hughes said of why he is a fit for the Bills. "I'm fast on the field, I'm relentless, I'm always going after the ball-carrier. I'll do whatever it takes to help the team."
Hughes offered a flash of his prowess as a pass-rusher in a nine-on-nine drill last week in OTAs. From the strong side, Hughes timed the snap perfectly, blew past his blocker untouched, and tapped up quarterback Tarvaris Jackson for the sack, sending the defense into a frenzy.
Hughes summed up the atmosphere of his new home.
"We're all competing. At the end of the day we all want a W."
Bills fans can expect to see Hughes working as a strong side linebacker and rush end, with some subpackage rush looks, where he will look to continue to build on the abilities that made him a first round talent.