When you ask an average NFL fan what the biggest storyline surrounding the Buffalo Bills is at this very moment, you're likely to hear the name "Terrell Owens" more often than you hear anything else - and by a long shot. From an off-field impact standpoint, yes, Owens is absolutely the big storyline right now. Those who pay closer attention might cite the offensive line or the pass rush as worthy of daily coverage, again with good reason.
From a purely schematic, team-oriented standpoint, however, perhaps the biggest change thrown our way by the Bills this off-season was the move to the no-huddle offense. We first got wind of the return of the no-huddle in May. Skepticism was abated a bit in June when word leaked that the Bills used the offense early and often in mini-camps. Now, a few short days into training camp, the offense is still prominent. As long as QB Trent Edwards is healthy, the no-huddle is here to stay, folks.
Buffalo certainly has the motivation and the talent to pull it off. With a completely re-structured offensive line featuring two rookie guards, wearing down a defense's pass rush by means of keeping them on the field is a good idea. So are quick-strike, three-step drops, which can certainly be orchestrated from a no-huddle set. The team certainly has the running back and receiving talent to pull it off as well. But the no-huddle isn't a passing attack. It's best when it's balanced. If there's one position on the field that holds importance on the field on an every-down basis (besides quarterback and the line), it's tight end. Without solid, versatile tight end play, Buffalo might struggle to implement its new offensive system.
No-huddle puts strain on tight end position
In its typical set-up, Buffalo will trot out five players at the skill positions. Three wide receivers and a running back are a must. A tight end will be out there frequently during normal game time; another running back or a fourth receiver could obviously be subbed in as well. As the Bills plan on running out of the no-huddle to keep the attack balanced, however, no position will be asked to do more than tight end.
Think about it - the tight end, in a no-huddle offense, can line up pretty much anywhere. They could line up on the line, where tight ends traditionally line up. They could be split out wide or lined up in the slot. They could motion into the backfield into an offset I-formation to lead block for a running back. Whoever plays the position most frequently will be asked to block, catch, and know several different types of skill sets (routes, blocking assignments, etc.). There really is a lot to do at the tight end position in this type of offense.
Perhaps it's a blessing in disguise, then, that the team's efforts to trade up for TE Brandon Pettigrew during the 2009 NFL Draft didn't work out. Pettigrew is a fine player, but it's questionable if he'd be up to all of that in this particular offense. The talent level at tight end isn't particularly overwhelming in Buffalo, but the team employs three guys that can capably handle all of the various responsibilities of the no-huddle tight end.
Figuring out the tight end competition
From an outsider's view, Buffalo's can't get significant contributions out of rookie Shawn Nelson soon enough. The fourth-round pick is clearly Buffalo's most talented player at tight end, with outstanding size (6'5", 240 pounds) and speed (4.52-second 40 yard dash). His hands are great. He'll be a matchup nightmare when he's ready to play significant snaps.
Until that time arrives, however, Nelson will likely be limited to a receiving-only role while he polishes up his blocking skills. Buffalo can't really get away with starting Nelson outright because of the role the tight end plays in the no-huddle. While he's rotated in, two-year vet Derek Schouman will duke it out with sophomore Derek Fine for the "starting" tight end role.
Right now, Schouman and Fine are splitting first-team reps pretty evenly. Schouman is in the best shape of his life and has performed very admirably; in addition, he has experience fulfilling the responsibilities that this offense demands of his position, dating as far back as his college years at Boise State. Fine, meanwhile, has also been impressive; he's got soft hands and is a tenacious blocker. Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com reports that Fine has been slightly better in the receiving department, so one might deduct that he has an early edge. Jonathan Stupar has a chance to stick around as additional depth as well. Either way, the Bills are likely to utilize all three (or four) of their tight ends frequently this year.
A make-or-break year
It goes without saying that this is a make-or-break year in Buffalo. Rarely has there been as high-pressure a season in these parts. Without a much-improved offense that can put points on the board, we're likely to see another highly mediocre, around-.500 team here. We can talk about the pressure on Trent Edwards and the offensive line all day. But the fact of the matter is that in a team sport where cohesiveness rules the day, improved tight end play is essential as well.