Colts, Bills Swap Linebackers

The Buffalo Bills and Indianapolis Colts completed an interesting trade early on Monday, with Indy sending former first-round pass-rusher Jerry Hughes to Buffalo in return for inside linebacker Kelvin Sheppard.

Hughes, the 31st-overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, was asked by the Colts to make the conversion to 4-3 defensive end after playing his collegiate years at outside ‘backer for Texas Christian. Behind Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, Hughes failed to crack the lineup as even a rotational player in his first two years with Indy (totaling only 12 tackles and one sack).

Heading into 2012, new coach Chuck Pagano made it clear that Indy would change their defensive scheme to 3-4, and hopes for recouping value from Hughes’ first-round selection grew with a return to his original scheme — and although his numbers increased to 41 tackles and four sacks in 2012, he was still viewed as a disappointment.

Meanwhile, Sheppard saw extensive playing time at middle linebacker following a third-round selection in the 2011 NFL Draft. Sheppard produced well on paper in his time with Buffalo, as he racked up a combined 150 tackles and two sacks, but was regarded as having more to offer and played sparingly despite recording starts in all 16 games in 2012.

The trade of Sheppard could be an indication that Buffalo plans to move forward with recent second-round pick Kiko Alonso as the starter at middle linebacker, although recent reports have linked the Bills to ex-Dolphins linebacker Karlos Dansby — who was released in March, only two years into the second-largest middle linebacker contract in NFL history (behind Patrick Willis). Dansby registered 101 tackles as a 16-game starter for Miami last year.

Ideally, Sheppard will compete for starting duties at inside ‘backer opposite injury-prone tackling machine Pat Angerer in Indianapolis. Other inside ‘backers on the roster include Jerell Freeman (145 tackles, 2 sacks, one pick and a forced fumble in 2012) and Kavell Connor (54 tackles and one sack in 2012).

Even with the loss of Dwight Freeney in free-agency, the Colts signed free-agent Erik Walden to start opposite Robert Mathis at outside pass-rusher. Instead of keeping Hughes as depth, Indy gained a potential starter in Sheppard who may still develop into a better player — and at the same time serves as insurance should Angerer go down with injury once again.

Meanwhile, Hughes will be asked to play either a pass-rushing role from end for Buffalo or serve as a standing rusher on early downs. For the Bills this is more of a last-ditch effort to get return for Sheppard’s selection, as he had fallen from favor and new coach Doug Marrone’s staff was willing to look elsewhere for a starter.

This trade has the potential to be a big move for both teams, specifically for Indy, but at the same time there is a legitimate chance neither player makes an impact for their new teams — especially if they can’t crack the starting lineup.

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