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Bills score biggest signing by reeling in Williams

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By Kevin Fishbain

GM Buddy Nix said the Bills were going to be aggressive this offseason. I think it's safe to say he stayed true to his word.

Buffalo made the biggest free-agent signing in club history on Thursday, signing former No. 1 pick DE Mario Williams to a six-year deal that is reportedly worth up to $100 million with $50 million guaranteed. The contract will make Williams the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history.

It wasn't just the size of the contract that was big. The Bills pulled out all the stops, keeping Williams in Buffalo from Tuesday into Thursday and doing everything in their power to make Williams and his fiancée comfortable with the community. They also had to spend that time convincing Williams that the Bills can be a contender with him on the defensive line.

The Bills still have work to do to be a serious playoff contender, but fans can revel in what one Buffalo fan told me is the "greatest offseason day in Bills history." One thing is certain: No team will make, nor has made, an addition as significant as the Bills' signing of Williams.

The PFW spin

It's not just that the Bills addressed their most glaring need the past two years by landing the best pass rusher in free agency, and arguably the best in the league. The Williams signing shows how serious the organization is about winning, something fans in Western New York are unfamiliar with.

The Bills have historically avoided making a big splash in free agency. Last year, with plenty of cap space, Buffalo's biggest moves were signing LB Nick Barnett and WR-QB Brad Smith.

Nix said on Tuesday, hours before free agency began, that his early years in Buffalo were focused on numbers, that the team needed more players. This offseason was going to be different after the taste of success early in the 2011 season. The Bills were atop the NFL world after an upset win over the Patriots in Week Three. They were 3-0 and in first place in the AFC East. The Bills had a 5-2 record before the tailspin that saw them end the campaign losing 8-of-9 games.

That brief time in first place in one of the toughest divisions in football brought an atmosphere to Buffalo that hadn't been seen in years, but the playoff drought continued. With the Lions making the playoffs, the Bills now hold the longest streak of postseason futility in the NFL, but the brass saw in those early weeks that the pieces were there to be a contender.

The commitment shown by the Bills began early in the 2011 season, when they signed DT Kyle Williams — who used to be the team's top defensive player — to a contract extension. They did the same with QB Ryan Fitzpatrick midway through the season and then re-upped with WR Stevie Johnson before free agency began, signing him to a five-year deal. The Bills took care of their own and then reeled in the big fish.

"We plan on being aggressive, and resources will not be an issue whatsoever," team CEO Russ Brandon told WGR 550 in Buffalo on Tuesday.

The front office came through and convinced the best defensive player in free agency to come to Buffalo, a small market with plenty of tradition and die-hard fans.

It wasn't an easy 48 hours for those fans, an emotional roller coaster for a fan base that has been suffering for a while. When WR Robert Meachem, who joined Williams and the Bills' brass at dinner on Tuesday evening, suddenly signed with the Chargers, a "here we go again" sentiment was heard around Buffalo. The longer Williams stayed, the better their fans felt, but as reports continued to indicate there was a chance that Williams had another visit set up, fans and teammates turned to social media to plead with him to stay. There was even a "we want Mario" chant at the Sabres game. Failing to sign Williams after all that would have been a complete letdown, but instead, the Bills came through, sending plenty of hope to the fans (even if there may be delusions of grandeur in Buffalo).

Williams' decision has other off-the-field ramifications, as well. For years, the Bills have failed to convince top free agents to come to the Northeast. Buffalo is far from a destination for players, and money certainly talks, but Nix and Chan Gailey did enough to convince Williams that he could be a winner playing in Buffalo, bringing a star player to a small market — something we don't see often in today's NFL.

On the field, Williams should excel in Dave Wannstedt's defensive front with his hand in the ground. The Bills had only 28 sacks last season, led by Marcell Dareus' 5½.

Williams had five sacks last season, in five games.

The two-time Pro Bowler, who has 53 career sacks, will line up with Dareus, Kyle Williams and Chris Kelsay, giving the Bills one of the better defensive line units in the NFL. Playing Tom Brady's quick-throw offense twice a year, the Bills know the importance of getting pressure on the quarterback from the front four — just look at what the Giants do.

There are still holes, though, and it's possible that in the 48-hour visit, the team offered Williams promises that it wasn't done making moves yet. This is not a Super Bowl team, nor is it a surefire playoff team. The Bills had plenty of issues last season on both sides of the ball, especially down the stretch. A left tackle, wide receiver and lock-down cornerback remain as team needs. One of those is likely to be addressed with the 10th pick in April's draft.

For today, though, it is difficult to overstate how monumental this signing is for the Bills. They filled their biggest need with the best player available, with owner Ralph Wilson showing a commitment to doing whatever it takes to win, which fans have been craving. It's too early to say "the Bills are back," but there is plenty of reason for excitement in Western New York.

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