Bills should prioritize tight end over center


Schouman, tight ends can't cut it (buffalobills.com)

In building our Buffalo Rumblings Community Needs List - in which we prioritize all of the Buffalo Bills' biggest positional needs heading into the off-season - one of the more interesting debates to be held, at least offensively, is whether the Bills should make acquiring a tight end more of a priority than acquiring a new center. Good arguments can be made in both camps. So, in the spirit of sparking some debate this morning, I'd like to make formal my belief that acquiring a game-changing tight end would be the best move for Buffalo's offense this off-season.

I'm going to try my best to sway some opinions here at Rumblings this morning, but first, let me clarify something before you all get up in arms here: the Bills need to add player(s) at both of these positions. This is not what I'm debating. I'm simply stating my opinions on which position should receive priority this off-season.

Once I've stated my case, you are, of course, encouraged to state (or re-state) yours. We'll put it to a vote, and the community will decide which position will top our offensive needs list before we start breaking down the defense.

Teams go as QBs go
Again, let me re-iterate: the Bills should add a center and a tight end this off-season. Don't get me wrong; Buffalo should feature the running game as the centerpiece of their offense, and a road-grading center alone could allow the Bills to become dominant in that area.

But I view it like this: if an offense were a human body, the running game would be the heart. That makes the quarterback the brain. The body can't live without the heart, but it can't function without the brain. That's why NFL teams generally get as far as their quarterbacks can take them.

If the Bills want to make a playoff push in 2009, then providing weapons to speed up the development of QB Trent Edwards has to be the Bills' top priority this off-season. 2008 proved that the Bills can't get far even with a pretty solid running game (Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson did rush for 1,607 yards and 11 touchdowns, after all). The team went as far as Edwards went - when he was hot, the Bills were hot; when he was cold, the Bills found ways to lose.

I'm not saying that a center wouldn't help Edwards; clearly, improved pass protection is a must. I'm just saying a receiving tight end helps Edwards develop faster than a center.

Tight ends and power running
Take a look at some of today's best NFL tight ends. Names like Crumpler, Heap, Winslow, Witten, Clark, Gonzalez, Gates and Cooley are most often associated with good tight end play these days. Of that group, the majority of those players are (or have been) featured receivers for teams who featured power rushing attacks offensively. If a rushing attack is a young quarterback's best friend, then a difference-making tight end makes that best friend much more attractive.

Right now, Buffalo's trio of mediocrity - Robert Royal, Derek Fine and Derek Schouman - clearly aren't getting the job done at the position. The three tight ends combined for just 58 receptions and 3 scores last season, and none of them are guys that can take attention away from Buffalo's more explosive offensive weapons. We've already identified Royal as a possible expendable player, while we've labeled Fine and Schouman as guys that can contribute, but not as featured players.

A good tight end is more beneficial to an offense that features the power running game than a center. How? A receiving threat at the position makes the play-action passing game deadly. One of Buffalo's favorite plays this past season was a play-action rollout to the tight end, particularly at the end of games. It got them in serious trouble in the Meadowlands, but that's beside the point. A factor tight end makes that play work far more often than Schouman does.

Centers vs Tight Ends in March and April
Receiving tight ends are difficult to find. Solid athletes at the position are so rare that tight ends often go far higher than they probably should in the draft; it's the reason that guys like Winslow and Vernon Davis were Top-10 picks. Finding a center is a far easier task than finding an impact tight end, and there's very little to debate on that fact.

This off-season, that trend continues. There are several veteran centers - headlined by Minnesota's Matt Birk and Indy's Jeff Saturday - that could potentially hit the market as unrestricted free agents. The 2009 Draft also features one of the deepest center classes in recent memory, headed up by everyone's favorite draft prospect, Cal's Alex Mack. Options are far more limited at tight end, with Houston's Owen Daniels not likely to hit free agency and only two to three tight ends considered legitimate first-year receiving threats in this year's draft.

Defining "Priority"
When I claim - correctly, in my view - that the Bills should make finding a tight end a higher priority than finding a center, it's with two asterisks next to the claim. First of all, I'm not claiming it's going to be easy. Just take a look at my last point - elite tight ends don't turn up often. Fortunately for Buffalo, there are one or two names available this year that, if the chips fall correctly, could land Buffalo their first impact player there since Pete Metzelaars.

Obviously, since finding a center will be far easier than finding a tight end, the Bills could - and probably will - end up filling their need at center first. This is the second asterisk. That's fine, and ultimately, that's probably the preferred route. One of these two spots should be filled with a veteran; the team can't repeat their 2008 off-season move of "filling their need at wide receiver" with rookie James Hardy.

When I say "receive priority", I simply mean that the Bills should focus more time, attention and cap dollars on finding a tight end. The center position is clearly important, and I'm not advocating ignoring it by any stretch of the imagination. I'm simply saying that there is an opportunity to land a tight end that can help Edwards mature and diversify Buffalo's offense this off-season, and if landing one means filling the need at center with a mid-priced veteran and a mid-round draft pick to groom, the Bills should absolutely pull the trigger. Good centers are stumbled upon far more often than good tight ends.

I'm sure some of you are seething and ready to rip my argument to shreds. Have at it. Just don't expect my viewpoint to change! Don't forget to vote in the poll on this topic, and once a winner is decided, we'll re-prioritize our complete offensive needs list and finalize it before moving on to defensive reviews. Oh, and OU's Jermaine Gresham is awesome. (I almost went the whole post without mentioning his name!)
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