Tight end has, by and large, been a problem area for the Buffalo Bills for three decades now.
In the 1983 NFL Draft, two picks before the team selected eventual Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly at No. 14 overall, the Bills drafted Notre Dame tight end Tony Hunter. He spent two years with the Bills, catching five touchdown passes, and then two more seasons with the Rams before his NFL career concluded.
That was the last time the Bills spent a first-round draft pick on a tight end. (They did it a couple of times in the '70s, too - Paul Seymour and Reuben Gant in back-to-back seasons in '73 and '74, to be exact - in a bygone era of pro football that was vastly different from the version played today.) Since then, the Bills have only had flash-in-the-pan successes; Pete Metzelaars was a consistent player cleaning up the table scraps left by four Hall of Fame skill players around him, Keith McKeller was the namesake of the "K-Gun" offense despite his ninth-round draft status and meager production, and the gold standard of drafted Bills tight ends, Jay Riemersma, was a converted quarterback out of Michigan drafted in the seventh round.
Since their pick of Hunter, just over 31 years ago now, the Bills have drafted two more tight ends in the Top 100. Lonnie Johnson, a 1994 second-round pick out of Florida State, spent five mediocre seasons in Buffalo before his career ended. Kevin Everett, a third-round pick out of Miami (FL) in 2005, saw his career ended by a brutal spine injury before it had a chance to really take off.
Is it finally time for the Bills to bite the bullet and invest a first-round pick in the position again?
Talent on hand
Buffalo currently employs two proven commodities at tight end: Scott Chandler and Lee Smith. Chandler, re-signed to a meager two-year contract in free agency, was the team's leading receiver in 2013 due largely to a rash of injuries at the quarterback and wide receiver positions. Chandler is a highly replaceable athletic talent, but he has actually stabilized one of the Bills' perennial sore spots in his three years as a starter, catching 134 passes for 1,615 yards and 14 touchdowns in that time frame.
Smith, who is entering his fourth season with the Bills, is purely a blocking specialist - and a rather good one - and won't ever factor into the receiving game discussion because of his athletic limitations.
Beyond the proven commodities, the Bills have two worthwhile projects in Tony Moeaki and Chris Gragg. Moeaki, a former third-round pick in Kansas City, is attempting to revive his career after injuries derailed a promising first season with the Chiefs as the replacement for Tony Gonzalez. He is the closest thing, talent wise, that the Bills have to a legitimate, every-situation starting tight end on the roster - but they cannot rely on him being the answer due to his injury concerns. Gragg is a highly athletic 2013 seventh-round pick that did not play much in his rookie season, but who has the speed to stretch defenses vertically if he can earn more playing time. That is no given, either, especially if the Bills address this position in a significant way in the draft.
Need assessment: Modernize
For too long, the Bills have been stuck in the past at this position. If they invest here early, it will be in an effort to finally, mercifully modernize the position to match the new standard of athlete in the NFL. A young, athletic starting tight end, it could be argued, would do more to aid in the development of EJ Manuel than perhaps any other singular personnel move. The only question is whether or not the Bills are comfortable using a Top 10 pick to do it.
What the Bills don't need to do is address the position no matter what. If they choose to add a top-level talent in Round 1, or a very good talent in the second or third rounds, that would be lovely. But a project-type talent in the middle to late rounds won't change their investment pattern at the position, and it's very difficult to envision that player seeing much playing time ahead of their already-worthwhile projects.
To that end, the three tight ends that the Bills brought to Orchard Park on pre-draft visits are all likely to be off the board by the end of the second round this week. Eric Ebron of North Carolina is widely considered the top player at the position, and will be a legitimate option for the Bills to consider at No. 9. Athletically, he is exactly what modern NFL offenses covet from the tight end position, and he would help elevate Buffalo's passing attack to new schematic heights. There are, however, concerns about Ebron's attitude that the Bills have undoubtedly researched thoroughly.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins of Washington and Troy Niklas of Notre Dame are both high-upside players that could seriously contend for a starting job right out of the gate, as well. Both are huge players - Seferian-Jenkins is 6'5" and 262 pounds, while Niklas is half an inch shy of 6'7" and 270 pounds. Neither are the nimble athlete that Ebron is, but both are massive targets with better-than-average (and certainly better than anyone in Buffalo) run-after-catch ability, and both would offer a downfield element that the position currently can't offer. Niklas is also an excellent blocker, and offers more upside than Seferian-Jenkins, who may be slightly more pro-ready this year.
There are several intriguing mid to late round prospects that the Bills could consider, but again, it's tough to envision any of those players cracking the lineup in any significant way as a rookie. The only other early-round tight end that could come in and play right away is Jace Amaro of Texas Tech, a catch-first tight end with schematic versatility and underrated blocking ability. He, like Seferian-Jenkins and Niklas, should be squarely on the Round 2 radar of Bills fans.
Set aside the character concerns for a moment. Forget about his blocking ability (or lack thereof), too. Is Ebron's talent, in your mind, a worthy Top 10 investment for the Bills to make, knowing that he'd be here for the specific purpose of taking Buffalo's passing attack to the next level?