The initial frenzy of NFL free agency has died down, and when the dust settled, the Buffalo Bills walked away from the opening weeks of the league year with seven new players. The Bills also saw the loss of a captain in Tremaine Edmunds and a handful of offensive role players. How do the Bills stack up now versus last season’s team? We will look at some additions and one key departure to see where Buffalo stands.
G Connor McGovern
Connor McGovern comes into town to shore up the offensive line after a rocky 2022. The only player not returning (at least as a starter) is left guard Rodger Saffold. Both the Bills and McGovern said he expects to slide into that role. Luckily for McGovern, it would be nearly impossible not to be an improvement over the 2022 version of Rodger Saffold. Out of 54 guards to play at least 50% of their team’s snaps, Saffold was the 49th-ranked guard in pass blocking by PFF. He was 52nd in hurries allowed, 48th in pressures, 49th in penalties, and tied for 39th in PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency metric, which measures pressures allowed on a per-snap basis.
‘Better than Rodger Saffold’ is a low bar for McGovern to clear. So how much better was McGovern than Saffold? He was PFF’s 13th-ranked pass-blocking guard. He was tied for 17th in hurries allowed, 26th in pressures, and fourth in penalties, and finished tied for 25th in pass-blocking efficiency.
By the numbers, McGovern is an improvement in just about every area. Additionally, McGovern is young with plenty of potential upside, unlike Saffold, whose best football was behind him. At only 25, the guard has room to grow and improve his game.
WR Deonte Harty
The Bills have their ideal role for Deonte Harty: “wide receiver four,” meaning a player who can play inside, outside, and as a gadget role. The recently cut Isaiah McKenzie effectively filled this role, at times, throughout his career, but Buffalo resets the clock, so to speak, with the Harty-for-McKenzie swap out. Harty beats out McKenzie in volume and efficiency if you want to compare peaks. He put up 570 receiving yards on 2.69 yards per route run in 2021, a rate ranking among the league’s best that season.
On the other hand, McKenzie had his best year in terms of volume come in 2022, with 433 yards on 1.10 yards per route run. McKenzie’s yards per route run never exceeded 1.82, a mark exceeded by Harty in each of his four years in the NFL, albeit with a smaller sample size.
If Harty’s production scales up with his, he will be a massive step up over McKenzie, but efficiency doesn’t always scale up with usage. Additionally, Harty has never played more than 14 games in a season, whereas McKenzie has never missed more than two games during his time with Buffalo. The Bills are hoping Harty becomes what they thought McKenzie could be.
RB Damien Harris
Damien Harris is familiar to Bills fans. Since 2018, the Patriots running back averaged 7.6 yards a carry on 107 yards a game against the Bills. Harris comes in to take the job of Devin Singletary, who joined the Texans. Harris was the Patriots leading rusher in 2020 and 2021 before injuries and Rhamondre Stevenson forced him to give up the role.
Is Harris coming in to take the lead running back role? James Cook played well down the stretch for the Bills and was a second-round pick for the Bills a year ago. But the running has never been the lead running back, dating back to his time in Georgia. Nyheim Hines’s role in the offense last season was practically nonexistent. Evidence points to him having a chance to win legitimate snaps.
Is Harris an upgrade over Singletary? Funny enough, the two running backs have the exact same yards per attempt over their four-year careers. In 2022, Harris finished 38th in EPA per attempt to Devin Singletary’s 46th. In 2021 he was 21st to Devin Singletary’s 27th. In 2021 Harris converted 72.6% of his 3rd and 4th and short attempts to Singletary’s 60%. In 2022 they flipped-flopped, with Singletary converting 81.8% to Harris’s 50%. If you want to find a significant difference between the two, start with their height and injury history. Harris comes in at 5’11 with games missed due to injury in the last three seasons, and Singletary is standing at 5’7 with no games missed since he was a rookie.
Where Harris is an upgrade is in fumbles. Over four years, he only fumbled three times, as opposed to Singletary, who put the ball on the ground 13 times.
S Taylor Rapp
Taylor Rapp is the most interesting player to break down in this exercise because there is no player he is replacing directly. Rapp was a swiss army knife during his time with the Rams. He is listed as a safety, and 51% of his snaps came at safety. 25% came in the box, and 16% came as a slot corner.
None of this is to say Rapp can fill the massive hole left by Tremaine Edmunds. The Bills’ defense was .19 worse against the pass without Edmunds in 2022. Could using Rapp in personnel groupings with more defensive backs damper the loss of Edmunds? Despite the Bills playing almost solely in nickel for the last five years, Sean McDermott has experimented with extra defensive backs on the field. Siran Neal hasn’t proven effective enough to be used consistently. 45 of Neal’s 239 defensive snaps in the last two years came against pass-happy Kansas City. Rapp could be the player the Bills wanted to play that role. But even with Rapp, for the Bills’ defense will need to find an adequate middle linebacker, whether that player is currently on the roster, a free agent, or in the draft.