TE Nick O’Leary Could Thrive Under Dennison

Alright, folks. Pop quiz: Who was the only offensive skill position player to appear in all 16 games for the Buffalo Bills last season?

A few guys hit 15, but missed a game due to injury (LeSean McCoy), contract issues (Tyrod Taylor), or the birth of their child (Charles Clay). The only non-lineman to play in every game for the offense last season was, of all people, Nick O’Leary.

The former sixth-round pick has been something of a fringe player for his time in Buffalo. He began his career on the practice squad before returning to the active roster at the end of his rookie year. He likely would have been cut last year, were it not for an unfortunate injury to Chris Gragg during the preseason that landed him on IR and required Rex Ryan and Doug Whaley to keep at least one more tight end who had experience on the team.

So how did O’Leary perform last year? On the stat sheet, he was entirely forgettable. He caught nine passes for 114 yards. For reference, there were 43 single-game performances last year in which those numbers were out-paced.

Looking beyond the stats, however, shows that O’Leary was a solid contributor on the field, and could remain so in 2017.

O’Leary finished second among tight ends in run blocking, according to Pro Football Focus. In 163 run block snaps, O’Leary’s grade of 83.1 was behind only Anthony Fasano of the Miami Dolphins. With the Bills’ offense being such a run-heavy operation over the last couple of seasons, O’Leary has certainly earned his keep in limited playing time.

 

His best performance by far came in the Bills’ 45-16 dismantling of the San Francisco 49ers in Week 6. Here’s one of the more memorable plays from that game: McCoy’s masterful 22-yard scamper to convert a 3rd-and-20.

O’Leary is in an in-line position, but flexed a couple yards wide. Post-snap, he recognizes the play is headed back in his direction. When Shady cuts toward him, he quickly engages Eli Harold (57) and prevents him from getting a hand on McCoy. Plenty of players made that run work, but O’Leary set the tone with his initial downfield block that allowed McCoy to keep cutting at full speed.

Later in the game, he also contributed a notable reception. This was late in the third quarter, with the Bills holding on to a 17-13 lead.

O’Leary, the lone tight end on this play, is in-line next to Jordan Mills. Post-snap, the 49ers play zone coverage, and safety Antoine Bethea (41) is more concerned with Robert Woods coming up the opposite side of the field than he is with O’Leary.

Taylor does a great job of reading the field and keeping the play alive. O’Leary keeps up his end of the bargain by recognizing the field boundary, slowing up, and making a great leaping reception away from the body, all while maintaining control as Bethea comes down to hit him.

O’Leary saw his most extensive action of the season in the game Clay missed, a Week 13 road loss to the Oakland Raiders. Here’s another look at him showing off his blocking chops, this one coming after the two-minute warning in the first half.

The Bills were pretty well-loaded to the right, as O’Leary and fullback Jerome Felton were out in front of McCoy for this one. After chipping Mills’s defender, O’Leary engages Perry Riley, Jr. (54) and forces him to reverse his field to make a play. By the time Riley does engage McCoy (along with cornerback David Amerson), Shady has already picked up nine yards on second-and-12. The drive ended with a punt, but O’Leary’s block gave the Bills a makeable third down situation.



 

It’s clear that O’Leary is a positive contributor in his limited role, but does he have a future under the new coaching staff? To answer that question, one needs to look no further than Jeff Heuerman.

There are a few trivial similarities between O’Leary and Heuerman. They’re both 24-year-old native Floridians who won a national championship in college (O’Leary at Florida State, Heuerman at Ohio State). They both caught nine passes for fewer than 150 yards last season. They’re fairly similar physically, with Heuerman only two inches and about seven pounds larger than O’Leary.

Heuerman, as you might have guessed, is a depth tight end for the Denver Broncos and played last year under Bills’ offensive coordinator Rick Dennison. After missing his rookie year due to a preseason ACL tear, he appeared in 12 games for the Broncos last year.

Here’s a look at Heuerman making a big catch in a late drive during the Broncos’ Week 3 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Broncos are running a standard I-formation, with Heuerman (82) lined up next to the right tackle. He runs a deep corner route across the middle of the field and manages to beat his coverage to make the play. It’s not exactly the same as the O’Leary catch I highlighted above, but it’s not hard to see O’Leary filling that same role in the offense.

 



 

Overall, I believe that O’Leary is a much better blocker than Heuerman. Heuerman doesn’t exhibit the physicality of O’Leary, and that mentality will be important, as the Bills will not be able to totally transition into a finesse game.

 

Here’s another example of some blocking from Heuerman on a nine-yard run during the Broncos’ Week 4 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The play is a weak-side run, with Heuerman lined up next to the right tackle. He doesn’t hold his position on the line, but pulls behind the guard while the line blocks down. He doesn’t engage anybody on the play, but the mobility required is something O’Leary is going to need to contribute if he wants to keep his playing time up next year.

It’s a fairly safe bet that O’Leary sticks with the team next season. He doesn’t have any real competition for the backup tight end role behind Clay, and even if he doesn’t hold on to that, he probably won’t get knocked off the roster unless he’s injured.



What’s more important on his end is that he’s entering the final year of his rookie deal. If he wants to earn a second contract, whether it’s with the Bills or someone else, then he’s going to need to continue to perform well as a blocker while contributing a bit more to the passing game. He should have every chance to do that under Dennison, but whether he takes advantage of the opportunity is largely on him.

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