'It's a winning culture here': Buffalo has transformed into free-agent destination

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Von Miller had a choice to make this offseason. Where would the 12-year veteran edge rusher spend the next phase of his career?

The defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams wanted him back. The weather is better on the West Coast, playing with defensive tackle Aaron Donald is a nice perk and he has a relationship with Rams coach Sean McVay.

Miller also considered returning to the Denver Broncos -- the team with which he spent most of his career. But instead of either, he ended up inking a six-year, $120 million deal (that is in reality more of a two- or three-year deal) with the Buffalo Bills.

"This is different,” Miller remarked upon entering the Bills’ news conference underneath Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York.

A future Hall of Famer not only deciding to come to Buffalo but initiating the conversation with the Bills is not something that would have happened a few years ago.

When general manager Brandon Beane first joined the Bills' front office in 2017, it was all about getting players interested in coming to Buffalo.

"I remember saying here a few years ago about 'people don't want to be in Buffalo,'" Beane said. "It's exciting to me that the city of Buffalo got chosen over the glamor of L.A. or Dallas or some of these other cities. ... Hopefully, we'll continue to do things that people will say, 'Hey, I want to be a part of that.' That's helpful, because a lot of these deals, the money gets close, and you're looking for the tiebreakers, whether that's playing with Josh Allen, playing in front of Bills Mafia, I think it all weighs in."

What has changed? The development and performance of quarterback Josh Allen and one of the league’s top defenses has helped flip the script in Buffalo. The Bills have become a destination team for NFL players.

"It had to be something special. It had to be the Buffalo Bills to really get me over the hump," Miller said. "And right when I signed on the contract, I felt good. The smile came back. The happiness came back, Von came back. But this was definitely a stressful process ... it was tough, man, it came down to the very end and coach McVay, they did everything they possibly could and it's unfortunate that I'm not a Los Angeles Ram, but I’m a Buffalo Bill, man. I'm excited to be here. I'm excited to go chase multiple Super Bowls with these guys, and it's an honor and a privilege to be here."

While adding Miller -- assisted by the recruiting efforts of Allen and wide receiver Stefon Diggs -- is certainly the splashiest of the Bills’ free-agency moves, he’s far from the only player to be interested in joining what Beane and coach Sean McDermott have built in Buffalo.

Former Bills, like defensive linemen Jordan Phillips and Shaq Lawson, enjoyed their experience in Buffalo so much that they decided to return, not wanting to miss out on what this team is building.

"It looks like they want to win. Everybody looks like they want to win," said defensive tackle Tim Settle, who joined the Bills in free agency from the Commanders. "They play like they want to win; you could tell every week they want to win. It's a winning culture here, that’s what we want to be a part of. From the bottom to the top, they want to win, and everybody's bought in."

But the biggest draw might be Allen. His performance in the Bills' two playoff games put the entire league on notice, completing 48 of 62 passes (77.4%) for nine touchdowns and zero interceptions, in addition to 17 carries for 134 yards.

Allen is under contract through 2028, and the team has shown an ability to build around him the right way. The Bills have won the AFC East two seasons in a row and are making a push for the Super Bowl. The culture has changed.

"The proof's in the pudding. You look at this team the last couple years, they were so close to going all the way," said tight end O.J. Howard, who came over from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "... It's just a great spot to come to with a quarterback like Josh and seeing all the talent around him."

When thinking about switching from playing with the seven-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady to Allen, Howard recalled the Bills’ loss to the Bucs last year and how Allen almost led Buffalo to a comeback, despite suffering an injury.

"To see that type of leadership put on display, the grit, and toughness in that moment was huge," Howard said. "We pulled it off toward the end, but that game was [there] for Buffalo to come in and take it. So, it was just a lot to say about that team that day."

Offensive guard Rodger Saffold III came to the Bills from the Titans.

"When it comes down to just the situation, and the opportunity of being able to play for a championship, I knew it was going to be with this organization," Saffold said.

With the draft and the rest of free agency to go, the Bills are favorites to win the Super Bowl (+700, per Caesars Sportsbook) coming off three straight 10-plus win seasons and two straight AFC East titles. Getting over the hump has been the problem, and recent high-profile additions in the AFC will only make that more difficult.

Being in the mix, however, made Buffalo into a destination and brought Miller, who could be the missing piece the defense needs. The Bills generated pressure at the second-highest rate last season (34% of dropbacks), but only one Bills defender had at least five sacks (defensive end Mario Addison with seven)

As the team continues to build under a tight cap (about $2.2 million in space), the Bills hope to use their contender status as leverage to sign players at cheaper prices.

"Please come to us for as cheap as you can, right now," Beane said. "We're trying to tell people, sell opportunity, come here and, and we'll help you improve your value for next year."