In Defense of The Buffalo Bills First Week Plus of Free Agency

So, in my column last week, I predicted that Tremaine Edmunds was clearly going to be re-signed and that Jordan Poyer had two feet out the door — oh, and I may have insulted his wife. Well, I got that wrong. With one week of hindsight, we now know that Edmunds skipped town to sign one of the largest contracts of the offseason in Chicago. Meanwhile, Poyer decided he had work left to do in Buffalo. Well, to be fair, Poyer’s return may have had more to do with the soft safety market. Either way, he’s back. In my defense, when you’re right 53% of the time, you’re also wrong 47% of the time. I’m also wrong far more than 47% of the time.

Overall, the first week of the FA season was a bit of a wash. I’m on record going in that the Bills are in the enviable position of not needing to do much. Even if they had lost every free agent and did not sign a single outside player, they still would emerge as one of the top contenders to win the Super Bowl. They’d have holes, sure. But they’d also have a talented roster at most positions. The team suffered an absurd amount of trauma last season. Ten out of 11 defensive starters missed at least a game, and we know the rest of the story. Yet, the team still won more than it lost. Chances are that tragedy and the injury bug will be as brutal on them this year. Most importantly, they have Josh Allen and as long as you have an elite QB, you are always in the mix.

The Bills’ initial haul consisted of a decent, if unproven guard, an injury-plagued but speedy wide receiver/kick returner, and a back-up QB. The signing of Dallas Cowboys guard Connor McGovern wreaked havoc on rapid-firing Bills media on Twitter as there is another free agent guard (from the Jets) with the same name. Deonte Hardy’s compensation seemed excessive at first until it was revealed to be mostly incentives. Kyle Allen is cheap, Josh Allen’s best buddy, and has been perfectly capable when starting in the NFL. They also re-signed a bunch of key special teamers and back-ups to affordable deals, while pulling off restructures of Allen, Von Miller, and Stefon Diggs to make room. All of these moves made sense, but none eclipsed Poyer’s return.

Then, on Monday, the Bills front office had themselves a day. It was a low-key day to be sure. However, any time you take key players at important spots from division rivals, you’ve gotta feel a bit giddy. Early in the day, the Bills signed Trent Sherfeld, another speedy WR and beloved figure in the Miami Dolphins locker room. Then they made the most sneaky good signing of the off-season to date in New England Patriots bowling ball Damien Harris.

So, let’s look into the players they signed and re-signed this past week. And then let’s take a look at some of the players to whom they have been linked.

Jordan Poyer

Jan 22, 2023; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Buffalo Bills safety Jordan Poyer (21) reacts before an AFC divisional round game between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

OK, sorry Jordan. I’ll admit his tax talk still rankles. That said, what’s more Buffalo than complaining about New York state taxes? While I did suggest that Poyer’s age made him the lesser of the two major FAs to re-sign, it was not meant to imply that he was due to go downhill. Indeed, I did recognize that he likely had five more good seasons in him. It’s just that he’s almost a decade older than Edmunds if you’re choosing one. Also, he did say goodbye on camera.

However, he’s back and it’s a great thing. Buffalo were 13-1 when Poyer was in the line-up last year and was the heart of the defense. If we cannot keep the duo of Milano and Edmunds together, at least we have Poyer and Micah Hyde. Brandon Beane signed the pair of safeties off the scrap heap in 2017 as one of his first acts as GM, and each has earned All-Pro honors in their six seasons in Buffalo. To be fair, Hyde, while a back-up, already had a rep as a future potential star starter. Poyer, on the other hand, came in as a 7th-round pick for Philadelphia and battled through injuries in Philly & Cleveland. However, there is no question he has been an adhesive on the defensive unit.

If there’s such a thing as a shutdown safety, Poyer is it. In 2022, Poyer allowed QBs a 60.1 passing rating when targeted. The prior year he was even more stingy, posting a 42.2 rating against. On a team plagued by missed tackles, he posted a solid 4.4% missed tackle rate. The dude should buy stock in advanced stats, as those numbers are so good for him. But it’s not just the under-the-radar numbers, but ordinary stats stats. Since joining the Bills in 2017, the stout safety has had over 500 tackles, 20 INTs, and 10 sacks — the only player in the league to post those numbers. He’s also arguably the most versatile defensive back in the NFL.

The most important Jordan Poyer number stems from the team’s success rate when he’s healthy. In the regular season, the Bills were 12-0 when he played, 1-3 when he was out. That is a guy you want and need on the wall, and politics and tax comments be damned, I’m ecstatic he’s back.

Connor McGovern

Courtesy: Dallas Cowboys

The first thing I can say about Connor McGovern is that I was relieved when I found out he’s not the New York Jets guard FA with that name. That might be the bias of living in the New York market where the offensive lineman with that name is not exactly beloved by callers to the local sports station WFAN. A third round pick in 2019, he has started 29 games, including all 15 he was healthy for last year.

It’s harder to get a grip on offensive linemen talent at their no-stat position. There’s Pro Football Focus, who had him at a 52.0, which is not great, but PFF‘s grading criteria are mysterious and often bizarre. He did start on a team who perenially, and famously, have a top offensive line and Dallas did not want to lose him. Fan reaction, however, was a bit mixed. In any case, he’s young (25) and is coming off a full year where he clearly was not a liability.

The Bills’ biggest hole in a woefully disappointing offensve line (the expectations were not that high to begin with) is Rodger Saffold’s spot at left guard. The two-time Pro Bowler had an abysmal season last year. It’s a shame because he seems a lovely guy and teammate, but at 33, he’s probably just done. There’s no sign the Bills want him back. Will they slot him in there or will he battle Bates for a starting position?

There is one interesting possibility I have not seen speculation about. Under Kellen Moore, McGovern sometimes lined up at fullback and tight end. The Bills have loved to use its big men as decoys. Perhaps that was even the ultimate selling point. My favorite facet of the signing: that we got a starting caliber lineman for a minimal cap hit and just 8m AAV.

Deonte Harty — Washington Football Team vs. New Orleans Saints from FedEx Field, Landover, Maryland, October 10th, 2021 (All-Pro Reels Photography)

This one caught everyone off guard, and not just because the WR/KR changed his name from Deonte Harris to honor the father who raised him. The initial contract sounded exorbitant, nearing 9m per season. When the dust cleared, it turned out the deal was incentive-laden and hit the cap at a far more reasonable 3.7m. And there’s not much more guaranteed beyond that.

Signing Harty also rankled some feathers due to his mostly being a kick/punt returner in the NFL who has just one year of over 200 yards receiving. However, that’s not entirely fair. First off, he is not just a good returner, but an All-Pro one his rookie year in 2019. Paired with Nyheim Hines, the Bills have two of the five most prolific returners of the past four years. And that’s with Harty missing most of 2022.

Most importantly, in his last healthy season, 2021, he had 570 yards receiving. Perhaps most illuminating as to why he was inked is the fact he was sixth in the NFL in YAC (yards after the catch). It’s an element the high-powered Josh Allen passing offense has lacked and fans have been loud about this. While it may turn out to be a signing relegated to the off-season obscurity dustbin featuring non-impact players like Olandis Gary or Kirk Morrison, for now, it’s a truly smart signing with HUGE upside.

Kyle Allen

Courtesy: Jacksonville Jaguars

What is there to say? He’s Josh’s bestie. He’s been a serviceable backup quarterback. Were there more flashy options? Sure. But they would cost much more for a position you never want to see on the field anyway. Allen has 19 starts under his belt and more TDs than INTs. With the talent on this roster, Allen could keep playoff hopes alive, even if the light of said hope would be much dimmer.

Trent Sherfield

Courtesy: Miami Dolphins

The greatest testament to why Trent Sherfield is a great signing is how hard Dolphins fans took it. And it wasn’t just fans. Dolphins players Teron Armstead, Javon Holland, and Tyreek Hill all tweeted their shock when Tua’s third option put pen to paper in Buffalo. While on the surface, he’s a journeyman receiver, he put together a tidy little season last year, with almost 500 yards, a pair of touchdowns, and a 13.3 YPR tally.

Those numbers aren’t that impressive, but the excitement at snagging him from our arrogant division rival has more to do with what else he can do and who he’s replacing. Sherfield has earned a rep as one of the best blocking WRs — it’s an arcane skill, sure, but as with lining up big men as receivers, the Bills are one of the teams that more frequently insert a WR on certain downs solely for their blocking ability. He’s also been a solid gunner on special teams and we know how much the Bills value the third unit.

If you still harbor doubt, he’s essentially the replacement to Jake Kumerow, who will likely be taking his “talents” to the New York Jets to reunite with A-A-Ron Rodgers. Is Sherfield an upgrade to Touchown Jesus, an intermittent fan favorite in Buffalo? Almost certainly.

Damien Harris

Courtesy: New England Patriots

And here’s the one I almost feel like I wished into existence. Part of me would have loved the return of Devin Singletary, his nose down attitude and his 4.6 YPC in his career. But James Cook is the future at RB. And Harris is just the perfect mix of stocky and speedy to serve as counterweight. Singletary was never astute at punching in the ball in short yardage goal-line situations. Harris has 18 TDs in his last 26 games. And unlike other FA target Jawaan Williams (of 17 TDs in 2022 fame), most of them were for more than a yard.

The Bills may have had the clearest view of just what Harris is capable of, as with New England, Harris murdalized the Bills defense. In four career starts, only once was Harris held under 100 yards; he also scored five TDs. Furthermore, they signed the running back for just 1.7m, under the threshhold that would enter him into the comp pick formula. With Singletary leaving for Houston, that should unlock a third rounder in 2024, slightly salving the huge loss of Tremaine Edmunds.

David Edwards

Courtesy: Los Angeles Rams

This O-line signing literally happened while I was adding images to this article. It was not unexpected, however, as the Rams guard had visited earlier this week and seemed a perfect fit. He’s been a starter, and a slightly above average one from what I can glean, whenever healthy. Edwards started all 17 games for L.A. in 2021. He was beset by concussions last year, so that’s a concern, but then so it was with 2022 Pro Bowler Mitch Morse when they brought him in. As Matt Parrino and Ryan Talbot observed on their SHOUT! podcast, Morse’s presence on the team might actually help him navigate the waters.

The Rest of the Re-signees

Courtesy: Buffalo Bills

While there’s no need to take a deep dive into the rest of the returnees, they’re not unimportant. Retaining CB Dane Jackson as an RFA is quietly key. Jackson had his struggles when thrust into the CB1 role last year. Still, as a back-up at a 2.7m rate (or less), he’s a downright steal. He can be beat in coverage, but his big play potential is there. This is proven by his 12 pass breakups and 2 INTs. It’s also important to note that criticism of his coverage skills may be greatly exagerrated. He’s held opposing QBs to under a 60% completion rate the last two seasons and his WB Rating against was 80.2, a totally respectable number.

Punter Sam Martin re-signed. We sometimes needs a punter and he’s in the top half at that position. He’s may not be a punt god, but he’s also not… well, let’s not go there. LB Tyler Matakavich is one of the top special teamers in the NFL. They like guard Ike Boettger enough to hold onto him through multiple injuries. LB Tyrel Dodson, CB (and UB alum) Cam Lewis and OT David Quessenberry have their detractors, but they have been solid depth components and they know the system.

Lewis might be the most questionable. The UB album is such a mixed bag as he’s versatile, filling in at both safety and CB, often ably. He also had two of the most maddening plays of the year. He was skied on a 4th & 18 conversion by Justin Jefferson in the collapse against Minnesota and committed an absolutely mystifying roughing the punter penalty vs. Miami. The former, while a dumb play where he should have knocked it down, was a CB6 playing as a safety against the best WR in football. However, the latter was pretty inexcusable.

They still might sign the Bills superfan comedy duo of DE Shaq Lawson and DT Jordan Phillips. Lawson was mostly Phillips’ plus one when the Bills brought back the stout defensive tackle. However, the one-time Bills first round pick wound up being a quite valuable addition in his return. He’s always been one of the best edge rushers against the run and his 3.5 sacks tended to be timely. Phillips didn’t do anything wrong. In fact, you gotta hand it to the guy for playing with one arm as he battled injury. In any case, both would likely come cheap, love to be in Buffalo, and would be an uplifting presence in the locker room.

Perhaps the most encouraging move so far may be neither a signing or a loss. Last Wednesday, Stefon Diggs agreed to a restructure of his contract to free up around six million in cap space. On the surface, it’s a “so what” move. It costs Diggs nothing and even gets him more money. However, a big story of the last month or so was Diggs’ cryptic tweets. He may have simply been likely trolling fans. But it left a large portion of Bills Mafia (and the sports press beyond) frantically, and often way too eagerly, speculating that Diggs was out the door.

Coupled with some very public off-season comments about dissatisfaction over the way the season ended, it sowed definite seeds of doubt. It was never going to happen given it would cost well over 30 million in dead cap. The move would haunt the Bills salary cap for years. Restructuring adds to that figure. Doing the math, that makes his exit even less likely than that original zero. Let’s not confuse eccentricity and desire to win with diva-ness and discontent. Diggs is staying and will likely retire a Bill.

Bills Off-Season Grade (So Far)

Courtesy: Buffalo Bills

The Bills grade cannot be completely disengaged from their current position and salary cap situation. While it’s fair to say that their situation is one of their own doing, should it play a factor in how we perceive their success? How does one consider it in their grade? It’s also worth noting that the team’s moves have been part of what have made them a consistent playoff team, even if they have yet to make the Super Bowl in this era.

Given their entering free agency somewhere between 16 and 21 million over the cap, the fact that they only lost Tremaine Edmunds and have signed multiple players who are clear upgrades to a team that already was 13-3 is near miraculous. That said, Edmunds leaves a gaping hole in the middle of their defense, and they have yet to replace him. Still, it would have been much bigger, especially in a passing league, had they also lost Poyer.

Harty and Sherfield are not starters, but they give Allen better options than they had last year. I absolutely love the RB room with the addition of Damien Harris. In fact, my bold prediction is that they will be a top 5 rushing unit next year. McGovern is not nearly enough to elicit confidence in the O-line. But it’s a start, and due to the fact that FA o-linemen tend to be overpriced for what can be a crapshoot — KC signee Jawaan Taylor’s 20m/yr contract baffles me — the draft has always been the better focus to find replacements there.

If they somehow sign LB Bobby Wagner to a reasonable contract, this grade shoots up in spite of questions about age with the future Hall of Famer. Bringing in DeAndre Hopkins for Ed Oliver, on the other hand, would not move the needle for me. Even as Hopkins is obviously better a player (at least to date), Oliver is still an above average 3-tech DT aso it still tears a second huge hole in the defense. Hopkins is a legend, but 31 and coming off two years of injury. There are other moves which could move it up, a few that would drvie it down, but for now my grade is…

Grade: B