Earlier this month, we conducted a study of Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey and his use of tight ends throughout his career. The study seemed to confirm two facts: Gailey will use even average tight ends in the red zone, and if he's got a good player, he'll integrate him into the offense. But in general, Gailey's only had one season in which he played with a quality tight end (Tony Gonzalez, Kansas City, 2008), and tight ends typically have not been prominent receiving threats in his schemes.
Gailey is billed as a coordinator that gets the ball into the hands of his best playmakers. That trend could spell good things for one of Buffalo's unproven, young tight ends. Then again, that whole unproven adjective makes it unclear whether or not Gailey sees a tight end that can contribute as a receiver; as such, the tight end position is still a big mystery in Buffalo.
After the jump, we take a look at the five tight ends currently on the Bills' roster in our latest installment of the State of the Bills Roster series. Long story short: we're still not sure if it's fair to expect big things out of this position.
This is sort of dependent on what Gailey believes he can get out of the position. There are a couple of players on this list that can be legitimate receiving options for this team, while the remaining players are limited more to a blocking role. Given that fact, Gailey may choose to line his tight ends up on the line, in the backfield, in the slot - anywhere, really. Either the Bills will need to find one versatile tight end, or they'll keep a group of tight ends that afford them said versatility. But this position isn't particularly difficult - block well, catch if you can. That's the way it's been in Buffalo for a good many years, and unless a receiver emerges, that's what this position will continue to be.
Don't read anything into the order in which players appear below - they appear based purely on level of NFL game experience, and nothing more.
87 - Joe Klopfenstein. Yes, the man who has signed more NFL contracts than any other two players in the league combined over the past year is also the Bills' most experienced tight end. At this point in his career, however, he's a known commodity, and heading into training camp, he's a pretty clear No. 5 on this list. His chances of making the roster are slim.
82 - Michael Matthews. Claimed off of waivers from Detroit, the 6'4", 270-pound Matthews adds some much-needed size and grit to this position. He's not a receiving threat, having caught just eight passes to this point in his career, but given his unique abilities to this group, he's got a good shot of making the team as a situational run-blocking end and specialist.
80 - Derek Schouman. On his way to a career year before a knee injury ended his season in Week 2, Schouman is probably this team's most proven tight end, even though he has only 27 career catches. He lacks size (6'2", 223) and is therefore limited in his blocking abilities, but he's a smart, tough player, and most importantly, he's got an excellent rapport with possible starting quarterback Trent Edwards. How well he recovers from that knee injury could play a huge role in whether or not Schouman makes the team, let alone re-claims a prominent receiving role in the offense.
88 - Jonathan Stupar. Maybe it's just me, but I'm rather bullish on Stupar. He's got size (6'3", 254), is reliable as a receiver, and is the closest thing to a solid combination of blocking and receiving tight end on the roster. Entering his third NFL season, I'm going to be bold and predict that Stupar emerges as the team's best option at No. 2 tight end, capable of moving the chains as a possession-type receiver and blocking on run downs. I really like his potential in that role, and he's a solid specialist, as well.
89 - Shawn Nelson. Entering his second NFL season, Nelson, a fourth-round pick in 2009, is by far the most naturally gifted tight end on the roster. It's not close. Nelson flashed some play-making ability as a rookie, scoring a touchdown on a beautiful dive in his first professional game. He also, however, never caught more than four passes in a game, only brought in 18 passes in total, didn't score another touchdown all season, and constantly fought nagging injuries, missing three games entirely. He needs to stay healthy, and he needs to become a more consistent route-runner and blocker, but his upside alone makes him the favorite to start in Gailey's first year.
Nelson's got three years and $1.44 million remaining on the rookie deal he signed a year ago. Schouman is under contract for one more season, at $1.684 million, after signing a tender offer. Contract situations remain undisclosed for Stupar, Matthews and Klopfenstein, though it's safe to say all are on short-term, very cheap deals.
I'm not sure what to expect out of Buffalo's receiving corps, nor am I certain what we'll see from Nelson and the rest of the team's tight ends. Nelson, by far, has the best shot of becoming a true starting tight end in this league, though he still needs polish as a blocker. (He also needs to stay healthy.) I'm going to stay on the conservative side and guess that none of Buffalo's tight ends will put up big receiving numbers, but I do anticipate these players becoming more useful in the red zone in Gailey's offense. If this group can score more touchdowns, even if none are emerging as legitimate, integral receiving threats, that will be a nice start to the Gailey era for this unit.
Nelson obviously sticks because of his upside, and he's the favorite to start at this point. It remains to be seen if Nelson becomes an integral part of the passing attack, but given the state of flux at the receiver position, Nelson's got a shot to emerge. Stupar is the closest thing to a complete tight end on the roster, and I expect him to make the team. Matthews has a shot, as well, strictly as a blocking tight end, but he'll have serious competition from Schouman, who's something of a known commodity and got off to a hot start in 2009. I'm sticking with Nelson, Schouman and Stupar as the three tight ends that make this team, but Matthews has a good shot of sticking as well, unseating either Schouman or Stupar to do so. There's also a chance that all four players make the roster, with Schouman helping to augment the diminishing fullback position on the team.