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Opinion: Bills free-agent signings reminiscent of early McBeane regime

The cyclical nature of team building at play with Harty, McGovern signings

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

One of the necessary aspects of team building is getting surplus value. Getting a player who outperforms their contract is the path to getting value. We have a tendency to think about this only through draft picks (and it’s certainly where the most value can be obtained, as draft-pick contracts pale in comparison to free-agent deals on average), but having free agents outperform their contracts can be a big part of building an effective team in a limited resource environment like the NFL.

Some free-agent contracts are given out to known quantities. The team ends up paying a premium for that known quantity and although that player may play up to their contract, they very rarely exceed it. The contract the Bills gave to edge rusher Von Miller in 2022 (six years, $120 million) would serve as an example. Miller may play up to the deal (and through the first part of the 2022s season, looked to be doing just that), but he’s unlikely to exceed it. In addition, due to his age, there’s very likely a time coming where he no longer is worth the cap hits his contract is putting on the Buffalo Bills.

But those are the types of contracts you give out when you feel strongly that you need one specific piece at one specific position and there’s a player of Miller’s caliber available.

There hasn’t been a signing of that type for the Bills thus far in 2023. And I don’t think there will be. Not only because there weren’t players of Miller’s caliber available (Albert Breer from The MMQB described NFL teams telling him they thought the free-agent class “sucks”), but because it doesn’t appear to be the approach of the team this year.

Instead, the signings of wide receiver Deonte Harty and interior offensive lineman Connor McGovern so far in free agency remind me of the 2017 and 2018 Buffalo Bills free-agent classes. Allow me to elaborate:

Harty and McGovern are players who received reasonable but not top-of-market deals. They project to play meaningful roles in Buffalo as a starting guard and a slot receiver/potential return option. They both had their value at least somewhat suppressed due to a lack of previous playing time (McGovern just became a starter in 2022; Harty was injured for most of this year). Both are 25 years old.

In 2017 and 2018, the Bills signed three players who fit this mold: Jordan Poyer, Micah Hyde, and Trent Murphy. They, too, received reasonable but not top-of-market deals. They all projected to play meaningful roles in Buffalo as starting safeties and an edge rusher. They had their value suppressed (Hyde due to his “tweener” status, Poyer and Murphy due to injuries). Murphy was 27 when he signed with the Bills. Hyde and Poyer were both 26.

The Bills certainly got surplus value out of the Poyer and Hyde signings. Both became elite safeties on deals markedly below their play. Murphy did not live up to his deal with Buffalo and didn’t become the impact player the Bills were hoping.

But here they are trying the tactic again.

The Harty and McGovern signings are not Von Miller-type deals. They’re not John Brown-type deals (Brown already had a 1,000-yard receiving season under his belt before he came to Buffalo). They’re not Cole Beasley-type deals (Beasley had been established as a strong starting slot receiver in the NFL prior to joining the team). They’re not Star Lotulelei or Mario Addison-type deals (a known quantity as starting defensive linemen). They have much more in common with the deals signed early in the regime’s tenure. These are the types of deals that shoot for the free agent to be a diamond in the rough; a player who can outperform their contract and have your pro scouting department popping champagne at their brilliance.

I don’t know if McGovern or Harty will be those players. But looking back at other deals of this type from earlier in the McBeane tenure, it’s hard not to be at least a little intrigued.

...and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’m Bruce Nolan with Buffalo Rumblings. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @BruceExclusive and looks for new episodes of “The Bruce Exclusive” every Thursday on the Buffalo Rumblings podcast network!