Over the last two months, life for Jerry Hughes has largely fallen into place. He signed a long-term, lucrative contract extension with the Bills, and got married to his long-time girlfriend Meghan Robinson. Some might view this series of events as a sign that Hughes is settling down. For the productive pass rusher it's only the foundation for the next chapter of his football career; a career that he fully intends to take to the elite level.
As much as Hughes' life, both professionally and personally, has changed this offseason, what hasn't been tainted is the pass rusher's relentless pursuit to excel at a level where he cannot be ignored.
For most pass rushers in the NFL, back-to-back 10-sack seasons would garner an awful lot of attention. His 20-sack total over the past two years is good for seventh-most in the league. However, when you're flanked on a defensive line with three other players who have all been to the Pro Bowl each of the last two years, it's hard to win enough support to make it to the league's all-star game yourself.
Hughes isn't jealous of his defensive line teammates. He's determined ... and maybe a little ticked off that his game hasn't earned league-wide respect. For Buffalo's defense that's a good thing.
Two Aprils ago Hughes was traded to Buffalo from Indianapolis, a virtual football purgatory for Hughes. Though he understood he was buried on a depth chart behind Pro Bowl caliber players Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, Hughes believed he could at least contribute in a rotational or situational role. Such opportunities however, were few and far between.
The trade to Buffalo was not only an opportunity to play, and one of the best deals in the league in 2013, but a means to release every bit of frustration that had built up over his first three years in the league.
"When I set foot in the building here the first thing I did was speak with (current GM) Doug Whaley and (former GM) Buddy Nix. The first thing they said was, 'Make them sorry,'" said Hughes in reference to the Colts. "That's what I've been trying to do. Of course it's been sitting somewhere deep in the back of my mind. I've always been that guy who has been kind of overlooked and that's fine. I just take it all out on the football field."
A self-motivated player from the time he was a kid, Hughes has rarely needed anything else to push him, but he admits the frustration he held inside for not getting the opportunity to play in Indianapolis was necessary for him to succeed with the Bills.
"I think as a rookie I probably thought I was entitled (to play) being a first-round pick," he said. "So yeah I definitely needed it and I feel it's fueling me now in the right way."
Hughes is already entering his sixth NFL season, but the pass rusher still sees himself as a young player still learning the game. He considers himself a physical and visual learner, so the time he did not get on the field in Indianapolis those first three years slowed his growth as a player.
"I feel like I'm only scratching the surface," said Hughes. "The first two years here in Buffalo are the most football I've played in the NFL. So by me getting to understand the game more and really understand what I can do out there on the field, now I'm just trying to do it all. I feel like I can, so I'm just going to put myself out there and do it."
Hughes has other motivators that he likens to "knick-knacks" up on a shelf. They're not the end all, be all for him, but Hughes wouldn't mind if his name was attached to them.
"There's always motivation just by being a player in the NFL, especially a defensive end or pass rusher," he said. "You know the kinds of things that are out there. You know Michael Strahan has the (single-season) record for 22-and-a-half sacks. You know guys are kind of scratching at it and clawing to try to get there. So you know that's something that we've all put up there on our things to do. I would be lying if I said I didn't. Just little things like that, records and things where it's not really a selfish goal to have because it's still helping the team win."
On locker clean out day late last December, Hughes was already talking about getting back on the field for the 2015 campaign. He felt the team was close to ending the playoff drought, which has now grown to 15 years. Having the fourth-ranked defense in football had them on the cusp of the postseason, but Hughes, and his defensive teammates will be striving for more this year.
"We want to be the number one defense in the NFL," Hughes said flatly. "We weren't that last year so there's still a lot of room for us to grow. With the new scheme, and everyone understanding their role in the defense and how we can work throughout that system, we want to build on that. You always want to be the best at what you do and that's what we look forward to accomplishing."
That goal appears more realistic for Buffalo to accomplish with Hughes now back in the fold after he re-signed with the Bills in March a day before free agency opened. No other NFL team has more sacks than Buffalo over the past two seasons (111).
"It's another level of excitement and attack and enthusiasm that he brings to the table," said Mario Williams. "Everything is easier not just for myself, but for everybody. Everybody across the board can make things happen and having him is a plus for everybody. Not just up front, or across from me, or next to me, or however we may line up, but for our (defensive) backfield as well."
With Rex Ryan now in place as their head coach there's a strong likelihood that Buffalo's defense takes another step forward in 2015. Things are looking awfully good for Jerry Hughes these days. Just don't look for big expectations, a big role and big money to distort his approach to the game.
"I've still got to play football the same way, being relentless in getting after whoever has the ball," he said. "Nothing is really going to change."
The 6-2, 254-pound Texas Christian University product entered the NFL as a first-round draft selection (31st overall) of Indianapolis in 2010.