There has been a lot of talk about tight ends this offseason among Buffalo Bills fans and analysts alike, with much of it surrounding a potential trade for Philadelphia Eagles veteran Zach Ertz. With that deal seemingly dead at the moment, it looks more and more likely that Buffalo enters the 2021 season with the tight ends they currently have on the roster.
The Ertz rumors stem from the simple fact that the Bills’ tight end room has been less than stellar since, well, just about as long as anybody can remember. Scott Chandler and Charles Clay are in a close battle for being the best tight ends the team has fielded over the last 20-odd years. And while the rest of Buffalo’s offense went through a radical revolution in 2020, the tight end group remained as one of the lowest producing groups in the NFL.
Assuming that Ertz doesn’t end up on the roster, the Bills will be relying on third-year player, Dawson Knox, a former third-round draft pick from the 2019 class. Knox had a promising first season, especially considering how raw of a prospect he was considered coming out of the draft. Unfortunately, he did not take the expected step in 2020, perhaps in part because of some COVID issues keeping him off the field, or the limited offseason due to quarantine. After his first full NFL offseason, Knox is primed for a breakout year, and the pressure will be on.
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Behind Knox, there has been a lot of turnover at the position. Lee Smith and Tyler Kroft, who played the second and third-most snaps among Bills tight ends in 2020, are no longer on the roster. Smith was traded to the Atlanta Falcons and Kroft was released, ultimately signing with the New York Jets. While Buffalo ran very few multiple tight end sets in 2020 (the second-fewest in the NFL according to Sharp Football Analysis), Kroft and Smith combined to see the field on nearly 500 offensive snaps. Some of this was filling in for Knox while he was sidelined, but it’s clear that Knox can’t be the only contributor at the position on the team.
General manager Brandon Beane seems to agree with this sentiment, which is why he brought in former Seattle Seahawk, Jacob Hollister, in free agency. The former Wyoming teammate of Josh Allen caught seven touchdowns from the Bills’ gunslinger during his final season in Laramie. With over 50-percent of his targets and five of his seven touchdowns coming 10-or-more yards down the field, expect to see Hollister making plays downfield this season. He’ll also contribute on special teams, where he tallied 306 snaps over five different units in Seattle.
Behind Knox and Hollister, things begin to get a little dicey. The rest of the team’s tight ends have a total of 251 combined offensive snaps between them, and over 30-percent of those snaps have come in Week 17 games with no playoff implications. Reggie Gilliam is the most experienced of the remaining tight ends, but he’s mostly a special teams player – which is largely the biggest role of a third tight end. Gilliam is also more of an H-Back than a traditional inline tight end, as evidenced by his relatively recent position switch from fullback.
Tommy Sweeney is the biggest question mark of the group. A 2019 seventh-round pick, Sweeney had to contribute early in his rookie year due to an injury to Tyler Kroft, and looked decent enough in his limited action. A foot injury caused Sweeney to start the 2020 season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, but shortly before being eligible to return, he contracted COVID-19 and missed the remainder of the season after developing myocarditis. While he has little pro experience, Sweeney caught 99 passes and 10 touchdowns over his four years at Boston College. Even playing in a dated offense, Sweeney’s wide catch radius and soft hands allowed him to stand out during his collegiate career. Expectations aren’t super high, but keep an eye on Sweeney through training camp and the preseason.
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The remaining tight ends currently on the roster are Nate Becker, a longtime practice squad member, and Quintin Morris, a 2021 undrafted free agent. Both are longshots to make the 53-man roster, with Morris likely having a slightly higher chance.
Both Sweeney and Gilliam’s odds of making the final 53-man roster depend heavily on how many tight ends are kept. If the team opts to keep four, both are almost certainly safe. But if Beane decides he needs that roster spot for another position, the pair will be fighting for one slot. No matter who ends up on the roster for Week 1 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Buffalo needs more production from their tight ends if they want to achieve their ultimate goal of a Lombardi Trophy.