Buffalo Bills Are NFL's Biggest Under-the-Radar Winners of NFL Free Agency

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystMarch 19, 2019

Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane addresses the media during an end-of-season NFL football news conference, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)
Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

The Buffalo Bills are often treated as if they reside above the Wall. Well, the Wall has fallen, the white walkers are coming, and general manager Brandon Beane is the NFL's version of the Night King. 

Buffalo isn't an icy wasteland players are afraid to visit. Is it a preferred destination? Obviously not. Antonio Brown spurned the city when the Pittsburgh Steelers tried to complete a trade with the Bills for the enigmatic wide receiver, per The MMQB's Albert Breer.

As a whole, Buffalo is considered the least attractive destination for NFL free agents, according to an informal poll of 15 NFL agents conducted by Breer

The sentiment appears to be slowly changing with Beane leading the way, though.

A year ago, the organization built its entire offseason plan around the acquisition of a long-term quarterback solution. It believes it has one after selecting Josh Allen with the seventh overall pick in the 2018 draft. This year, the Bills have been aggressive in free agency by signing 11 free agents, and only one of those came on the defensive side of the ball. 

"I think they're turning things around in Buffalo," an agent told Breer. "That regime is doing things the right way."

When reporters broached the subject of Brown's unwillingness to play for the Bills organization, Beane took umbrage with the line of questions, per Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio: 

"That pissed me off, to be candid because it was an ignorant comment. I'm not on social media, but if you live in Buffalo or you know anything about Buffalo—don't speak about Buffalo if you don't know what this city and what this fan base is like. It really pissed me off because it's not true and when you talk to players — how many guys flowed through here today? Eight, nine, whatever, and we could have had more.

"We didn't have that narrative, it totally started with a bad rumor on the whole Antonio Brown thing. People looking for reasons, and they didn't have all of the facts. Again, people that have been here, I can't tell you how many people have commented, 'This is amazing. This is awesome. What a facility. What a place. What a culture.' All of that stuff that we have going here and we love this city and all I want to say is anybody who says that doesn't know Buffalo and really is just speaking out of ignorance."

The passionate rebuttal isn't rooted in blind optimism. The Brown deal to Oakland nearly didn't happen either, until the Raiders organization decided to make him the game's highest-paid wide receiver, according to general manager Mike Mayock (via NBC Sports' Peter King). Furthermore, Allen's presence creates a difference in perception. 

Of course, Buffalo isn't a destination spot when the team hasn't won 10 games in a season since the 1999 campaign, only made the playoffs once and sports a 127-177 record since the turn of the century. Yes, location plays a factor, as does a city's reputation. 

"There's just a bad rap about it," Tennessee Titans punter and Western New York native Brett Kern told The Athletic's Tim Graham. "Buffalo's not a big market, and it's a hard place to recruit."

However, money and quarterback play serve as equalizers. 

Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

"It's a pretty big deal," Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr, who tested free agency this year before returning to his original team, said of the quarterback position. "That's how teams go. If you want to experience success, then you need the 'Q.'

"Not saying that's the end all, be all, but it definitely factors in the equation."

Allen's potential alone makes the Bills more attractive. The 22-year-old signal-caller may have a long way to go, but he flashed last season. The result is an impressive free-agent class to solidify areas once considered weaknesses. 

Beane went to work and built a much better cockpit for Allen after being forced to play behind an inferior offensive line with little to no weapons. A strong foundation is necessary before the window dressing can be added. Although, the Bills did both almost simultaneously. 

"Yeah, I mean obviously our cap was in a position where we could be aggressive in spots that we needed to be, but again try and be smart with our money," the general manager said, per NYUp.com's Matt Parrino. "We know on offense where we statistically rank (30th overall last season), and it held us back in some games, so we were looking at all areas other than the quarterback really, to improve and I think we have some guys that will come in here and compete." 

The offensive line received the most attention, and this is where Allen will benefit the most. Dion Dawkins and Wyatt Teller were the only blockers already on the roster worthy of long-term consideration. Even so, Beane didn't just target one or two specific options; he signed five offensive linemen to create flexibility and competition. 

KANSAS CITY, MO - SEPTEMBER 17:  Center Mitch Morse #61 of the Kansas City Chiefs gets set on the line against the Philadelphia Eagles during the second half on September 17, 2017 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Ge
Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

Mitch Morse is the class' crown jewel after becoming the league's highest-paid center at $11.125 million per season.

"You know, Mitch [Morse] is a very good player," Beane said. "That was the first thing when you turn on the film. He's big, he's stout. ... He just fits what we do. We thought it was very important to [shore] up that area and keep the pocket firm for Josh [Allen], and also help us in the run game." 

Morse will be joined along the interior by veterans Spencer Long (three years, $12.6 million) and Jon Feliciano (two years, $7.25 million). Long made 44 starts in 53 career games. Ty Nsekhe (two years, $14.5 million) and LaAdrian Waddle (one-year deal) will likely compete to start at right tackle. The duo combined to start 47 games during their careers. 

The group should be bigger, more physical and much better overall than last year's ragtag bunch. 

Better protection provides more time instead of Allen serving as the team's passer and leading rusher. Last season, the rookie posted a 45.2 adjusted completion percentage under pressure, according to Pro Football Focus' Billy Moy (via BNBlitz.com). Three parts led to the awful number. First, the offensive line's deficiencies forced Allen to often bail from the pocket. Second, the young quarterback struggled to make pre- and post-snap reads. Finally, the Bills didn't have a single reliable receiving threat. 

Zay Jones led the team last season with 56 receptions for 652 yards. Those numbers ranked 55th and 59th overall, respectively. 

Ed Zurga/Associated Press

Three important signings provided the Bills passing game with more punch. John Brown (three years, $27 million) led the Baltimore Ravens with 42 receptions for 715 yards and adds another vertical threat alongside Robert Foster for the big-armed Allen to exploit. Cole Beasley (four years, $29 million) is a dependable slot receiver to serve as the quarterback's security blanket and help Jones become a more consistent target. Tyler Kroft (three years, $18.75 million) allowed the Bills to move on from Charles Clay while simultaneously providing a better inline and younger option at tight end. 

To top it off, the ageless Frank Gore (one year, $2 million) signed to share the backfield with LeSean McCoy and Chris Ivory. All three are 30 or older, yet Beane wanted Gore's professionalism in the locker room. 

"To bring him here, he's a pro's pro," the general manager said, per Parrino. "He's not going to be a big vocal leader but he's going to be a guy, who off the field, players can model themselves after."

Despite what appears to be lavish spending with so many new acquisitions, the Bills still have the seventh-most available salary-cap space at $33.13 million, according to Breer. Buffalo may not be done. The front office could land a significant target in defensive end Ziggy Ansah, who had a scheduled meeting with the team, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport

What other teams have done at the onset of the new league year garnered more attention.

The Cleveland Browns' combination of trades for superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and defensive end Olivier Vernon as well as signing defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson made the once-moribund franchise an overnight Super Bowl contender. The Raiders took a similar approach with Brown's acquisition, but they delved deeper into free agency by signing left tackle Trent Brown, wide receiver Tyrell Williams and safety Lamarcus Joyner. The Green Bay Packers completed arguably the most impressive initial haul by revamping a defense that will now feature safety Adrian Amos and edge-rushers Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith. 

The Bills may not have experienced the flashiest offseason so far or signed any of the big-name free agents, yet it's clear the organization can attract talent. The team is far better today on paper than anything seen on the field last season. 

No one knows exactly how this story will end, but the overall narrative surrounding the Bills is turning into a positive outlook. 

          

All contracts numbers courtesy of Spotrac. Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.

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