PHOENIX -- The Buffalo Bills finished the 2022 season with the team’s worst offensive performance by a significant margin.
While the output in the playoff loss to the Cincinnati Bengals (325 yards, 10 points) wasn’t emblematic of how the offense performed all season long, it reinforced that the unit needed more talent.
The Bills had the second-best offense in points scored per game (28.4) last season but No. 1 receiver Stefon Diggs was limited in games during the second half of the season by opposing defenses (two 100-yard games in last nine games) and not enough players stepping up around him. Signing veteran receivers John Brown and Cole Beasley late in the year, as a means of overcoming injuries and adding support for quarterback Josh Allen, wasn’t enough.
While the Bills haven't made a splashy move at receiver, the unheralded moves they have made -- signing wide receivers Deonte Harty and Trent Sherfield and adding running back Damien Harris -- have brought new skill sets to the offense.
What can the Bills expect, and what might be next?
The Bills moved on from the team’s leading rusher over the last four seasons in Devin Singletary and signed Harris, a former New England Patriot who rushed for over 100 yards against the Bills three times. Harris, 26, was drafted by the Patriots 14 picks after the Bills selected Singletary in the third round of the 2019 draft.
In Harris, the Bills are getting a bigger player -- listed at 5-foot-11 and 213 pounds, 10 pounds heavier and four inches taller than Singletary -- and someone who better rounds out the RB room with Nyheim Hines and James Cook.
“We were looking for a little heavier back to complement Cook and Hines, and I think we did that in Damien,” Bills general manager Brandon Beane said from the NFL owners meetings. “Scouted him coming out of [Alabama], and obviously he's been in our division and had some good games, quite frankly, against us.”
While the Bills went for a bigger running back, they did not sign a “a 250-pound, cloud-of-dust type of guy,” as coach Sean McDermott described it. The idea was adding a player with size and speed who should be harder to defend.
When Harris has been healthy, he has been a proficient scorer -- see: 15 total touchdowns in 2021. Availability, however, is a concern with Harris missing six games due to a thigh injury or illness last season. McDermott acknowledged the concern at the owners meetings.
“I just love the combination of size, some power and speed,” McDermott said of Harris. “Now, listen, he's got to stay healthy, because it's great to have all of that, but if you're not healthy, you're not helping us, so we're going to have to do our part to help him with that and help manage those areas and he's going to have to do his part in that, as well, but I think that was a good pickup for us.”
The first of the Bills’ signings at wide receiver in Harty marked a clear replacement for Isaiah McKenzie, who was later released. Harty should fill the No. 4 receiver spot, playing both inside and outside.
Harty, who was a first-team All-Pro returner in 2019, brings both speed and the potential ability to get open downfield and create yards on his own. Since 2021, the Bills have ranked 32nd in yards after catch per reception (4.38). Harty is also coming off an injury-filled season, playing only four games with a turf toe injury. In 2021, he averaged 6.9 yards after catch per reception.
“He was a guy I thought the previous year really showed some good stuff stretching the field vertically and tracking the ball well, but also can catch an underneath ball, can run an option route from the inside,” Beane said. “... I’ve mentioned RAC (run after catch) before, when you’ve got a guy who’s a punt returner, who plays receiver, those guys generally are pretty good RAC players. We followed him for a couple years, and we thought this was a good time to go after him.”
Sherfield has size (6-foot-1, 219 pounds), can play both the slot (295 career routes) and outside (560), and can block. He had only one drop on 52 targets (1.9%) last season, while the Bills finished 32nd in drop percentage (6.2%) in 2022. He adds important depth to the room.
The draft will be a logical place for the Bills to address the skill positions like wide receiver and tight end, with the team lacking another option at No. 2 receiver aside from Gabe Davis and a solid tight end to pair with Dawson Knox.
Beane said the team would likely pay any new free agents signed before the NFL draft under $2 million. Why? To receive a third-round pick in 2024 via the compensatory pick formula for losing linebacker Tremaine Edmunds on a four-year, $72 million contract.
Each year, the league gives compensatory draft picks to teams that finish the free agency period prior to the draft with more quality free agents lost than gained. The picks are based on a league formula that takes into account a players’ average salary per year, snap count and postseason awards, so signing players to veteran minimum or relatively inexpensive deals will ensure that they have lost more than gained with Edmunds’ departure. The Bills are planning to sign defensive tackle Jordan Phillips to a deal worth up to $4.6 million, per source, but that shouldn’t have a significant impact on the formula.
The team has been tied to a variety of talents from star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. -- Buffalo was among the teams in attendance for his private workout -- to Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who has a cap hit bigger than the Bills’ available cap space (would be more than $19 million for Hopkins and less than $10 million for the Bills).
“Social media is social media. Don't take that too far,” Beane said when asked about speculation around interest in Hopkins. “But again, you know me, when we've talked about OBJ, guys that are, you know, we're always going to look for talent. And so, we're going to look at anything and everything.”