Last summer, while the Buffalo Bills were in their first training camp with Chan Gailey, there was a sense that tight end Shawn Nelson was going to be a big part of Gailey's plans offensively. Albert Breer - then of The Boston Globe, now of NFL.com - was the driving force behind that idea. Here's what Breer wrote on Nelson when he visited training camp in Pittsford last August (bold emphasis ours):
A fourth-round pick in 2009, Nelson managed just 17 catches last year, and struggled with the mental part of the transition to the NFL, but the coaches seem to have big plans for him. He can really, really move for a big guy (6-4, 250), and there’s no better friend to an inexperienced quarterback on a run-first team than a tight end than can get down the seam. If Nelson can grasp the offense well enough, and block well (a must for Gailey), he could present problems in play-action for defenses.
Those big plans, if they existed, were obviously put on hold when a four-game substance abuse suspension, pre-season groin surgery, and then another bout of migraine issues prematurely ended his season. Nelson caught three passes in his second pro season.
Let's assume for the sake of argument, however, that Breer is correct, and those plans existed. It's fair to assume that the coaches still have those plans, considering that the team hasn't yet added a new tight end this off-season. Scott Chandler and David Martin could be factors, but neither is even close to being as talented a receiving threat as Nelson is.
Nelson is one of the bigger enigmas on the team, simply because we haven't seen an awful lot of him. Most of that is because of the migraines, as he's missed a ton of playing time trying to rid himself of that particular ailment. When he's been on the field, the Bills have tried to use him; he scored a touchdown in his first pro game, a rather memorable loss, and has already demonstrated an ability to make catches and turn upfield.
If Gailey plans on using a pass-catching tight end in some capacity - history says he will not, by the way, as the only productive tight end he's ever really had is future first-ballot Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez - Nelson would be the obvious choice. That's assuming, of course, that he's able to kick his migraine issues and work his way into the rotation. It will also be interesting to see if the team trusts him enough to be an in-line blocker, or if they'll use him in more of a slot receiver capacity.
Of the many intriguing stories to monitor when football returns, keeping track of Nelson will be near the top of my list. It's been a long time since the Bills had an effective, highly productive receiving tight end, and Nelson's potential is as high as it ever was. In an offense that is not lacking in weaponry, Nelson could be another piece to the puzzle as Gailey tries to further develop his attack.