Now that the 2009 NFL Draft is in the books and off-season player acquisition will crawl at a snail's pace, Buffalo Rumblings has begun re-examining the Buffalo Bills' revamped roster. We continue off our 'State of the Roster' series this morning with a look at the safety position. Previous installments: QB, OT, DE, S.
For years upon years, fans of the Buffalo Bills have been pining for a legitimate receiving threat at the tight end position. The team's last satisfactorily productive player at the position, Jay Riemersma, last strapped on a Bills helmet in 2002 - and even in that season, he caught just 32 passes and zero touchdowns. It's been a while since Buffalo had a player that defenses had to pay even the slighest bit of attention to at tight end.
Then the team got a tight end that could be the steal of the 2009 NFL Draft in the fourth round. Shawn Nelson, come on down.
With Robert Royal released earlier this off-season and Nelson on board, Buffalo finally has amassed the talent at the tight end position to field a trio that can actually make an impact in the passing game. Here's what the unit looks like currently.
STARTER: Derek Fine
A 2008 fourth-round draft pick, Fine started his rookie season on the injury list, not making his NFL debut until a Week 8 loss in Miami. His best game came in the game in which he recorded his first NFL reception, finishing a Week 9 loss to the Jets with 4 receptions for 43 yards and a score. Fine also quickly established himself as easily the best blocking tight end on the roster - even better than the departed Royal, who was considered potentially elite in that department when the Bills signed him before 2006. Fine may not have the best stats out of this group in 2009, but he's a virtual lock to get the most playing time - he's a good, crafty player with the potential to get better.
Never has Buffalo had a more athletic matchup nightmare at the position than the rookie out of Southern Miss. Nelson's arrival is likely the final piece of the puzzle in the Bills' decision to use more no-huddle this season. You won't see Nelson used in-line much, but he'll be on the field frequently - he'll be split out wide and used in the slot to create matchup problems for small sub-package corners, big, lumbering linebackers, or safeties that should be protecting the deep ball to Lee Evans and/or Terrell Owens. Outside of Bengals rookie Chase Coffman, Nelson might have the best set of hands on any player that came out of this draft class, and he's got potential as a blocker to boot. If this kid progresses the way everyone thinks he can, Buffalo will be set at this position for the foreseeable future.
He fits the "underwhelming" mode of most Bills tight ends of the past decade, but Schouman is a heady player that has proven his ability to be a short-area weapon for QB Trent Edwards. He's also getting a bit better as a blocker, and has the ability to line up in the backfield as a fullback as well. Adding in his special teams value, Schouman is about as solid a player as you'll find in terms of tight end depth.
A tall target, Stupar spent most of 2008 on the Bills' practice squad as a UDFA. He'll have a shot to land on the practice squad again this year, but he's facing long odds to land an actual roster spot.
A UDFA out of Alabama, McCall is being looked at in an H-Back capacity; he's got a good build (6'2", 264) for that role. He's a better prospect than Stupar, and if I'm being frank, I'd rather see McCall stashed on the practice squad this coming season. I think he's got a bit more potential.
Contract situations: Fine has three years remaining on his rookie deal, while Nelson will likely ink a four-year deal prior to training camp. Schouman is entering the final year of his three-year rookie deal and will be a restricted free agent after this season.
For the first time since... well, pretty much ever, the Bills have the talent at tight end to cause problems for opposing defenses. Most of the attention is (rightfully) being focused on Nelson; the rookie will be counted on to help open up a Bills passing attack that was mostly anemic under Edwards' direction last season. But don't discount 'The Dereks', either; both are solid all-around players that complement Nelson perfectly and should add their fair share of receptions as well.
Last season, Buffalo's tight ends caught 58 passes for 598 yards and 3 touchdowns - which really isn't as terrible as most make it out to be. But the point here is not production, it's causing matchup problems. For the first time in decades, opponents will actually have to concentrate on Bills tight ends in the film room and on Sundays - and that is far more important than anything else at this point in time.