The Buffalo Bills were engaged in intense negotiations Tuesday night to land the biggest free agent in their history.
The Bills flew Houston Texans star defensive end Mario Williams into town at the start of the NFL’s free agent signing period. They were trying to sign him to a deal that was expected to make him the highest-paid defensive player in the league.
Meanwhile, the Bills also entertained New Orleans wide receiver Robert Meachem, who landed in Buffalo about 7:30 p.m., roughly an hour after Williams.
The visits represented a stunning attempt by the Bills to fill their two most glaring needs — edge pass rusher and outside receiver.
Buffalo has been only a modest free agent shopper for the past four years and for most of its history since the NFL adopted an unrestricted free agency system in 1993. The last time the Bills made a huge financial commitment in free agency was 2007, when they bought offensive linemen Derrick Dockery and Langston Walker for a combined $74 million in total contracts.
A deal for Williams alone would far eclipse that total. The Bills were prepared to give him a deal that would surpass the one Chicago gave to Julius Peppers in 2010, worth $91.5 million over six years. The key figure, however, was Peppers got $40.5 million over the first three years. Huge NFL deals tend to get renegotiated. The upfront money the first three years is what matters most.
The Bills’ aim was to prevent Williams, the top defensive player available in free agency, from leaving town to visit another team.
It is rare for an elite pass rusher to hit free agency in his prime. Williams, 27, was the first overall pick in the 2006 draft. He’s a 6-foot-7, 290-pounder who has 53 sacks over 5 1/3 NFL seasons. Houston would have loved to retain him, but the Texans entered free agency with only about $1 million in space under the salary cap and had no chance to strike a deal.
Williams had 14 sacks in 2007, 12 in 2008, nine in 2009 and 8 1/2 in 2010. He had five sacks in the first five games last season, then went on injured reserve for the rest of the year with a torn pectoral muscle. He’s fully healthy now.
The Bills sent General Manager Buddy Nix and defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt on a private jet to North Carolina to pick Williams up at his home at the 4 p.m. start of the new league year. Williams then had dinner with those two, plus Bills Chief Executive Officer Russ Brandon, coach Chan Gailey and defensive tackle Kyle Williams, the Bills’ website reported.
Williams would be expected to solve the Bills’ biggest problem. Buffalo had just 29 sacks last season, tied for third fewest in the league. Take away their 10-sack performance against Washington, and the Bills would have been by far the lowest sacking team in the league. Tampa ranked last with 23 sacks.