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Can Derek Schouman Save Buffalo's Offense?

Schouman unexpectedly steals early reps (Photo Source)

Can a man with three career receptions - for 19 yards - possibly be the savior of a Buffalo Bills offense that, in reality, was one of the worst units in franchise history last season?

Second-year tight end Derek Schouman, like every Bills fan familiar with the name, is about to find out.

A 2007 seventh-round draft pick out of Boise State, Schouman was not even an initial member of Buffalo's final roster last season.  After the severe injury to TE Kevin Everett and another injury to TE Ryan Neufeld, Schouman was elevated to the active roster after spending the first five games of the season on the practice squad.

His active-roster stay as a rookie ended less than a month later, as an ankle injury forced the team to place Schouman on Injured Reserve on November 8, days after Schouman set career highs of two catches for 10 yards in a victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.

What a Difference a Year Makes
Flash forward to the post-draft, pre-training camp season of 2008.  Schouman is still returning from an ankle injury, and he's seemingly buried on the depth chart behind Robert Royal (the incumbent), Courtney Anderson (the vet newcomer) and Derek Fine (the rookie).  Schouman is, at the onset of the team's OTAs and mini-camps, considered a longshot to make the roster - and if he does, it'll only be because he can play fullback as well as tight end.

But with Royal sitting out spring practices due to injury, Schouman got the opportunity to practice - and practice he did.  Practice well, that is.  Take a look at how Schouman, the first-team tight end since early May (again, due to Royal's injury), has asserted himself as a factor in Buffalo's offense:

- May 22: "Derek Schouman and Courtney Anderson continue to run as the top tight ends and were often on the field at the same time"
- June 3: "Derek Schouman, who has been getting consistent first team reps with Robert Royal not participating, also factored into the passing game more Tuesday, particularly in the red zone. The second-year tight end made one high reaching reception off of play action from Edwards. He also had another catch in the flat that he turned upfield and likely would have scored on under live football conditions."
- June 4: "Derek Schouman was again a factor in the passing game Wednesday. Currently running as the number one tight end with Robert Royal not participating (knee), Schouman had three catches during team work. Edwards hit him with his first attempt in 7-on-7, and found him again on a read that earned the quarterback praise from offensive coordinator Turk Schonert. Schouman also made a high reaching grab in the flat to make a play."
- June 5: "Derek Schouman deftly positioned himself in between the linebacker and defensive back along the sideline and Edwards hit him for a touchdown."
- June 6: "Other offensive plays were turned in by Derek Schouman who stretched to make a catch on a high pass in the red zone. Schouman also had a touchdown reception later in the series."

There were a few more mentions of the name Schouman as well.  His highest praise, however, came after a particularly productive practice on June 10:

Edwards and Schouman have really clicked in the passing game this spring. After playing fullback last year Schouman feels he has benefited greatly from all the extra reps he’s received with Robert Royal rehabbing a knee injury.

“Personally I think the best way to learn is trial by fire and so the more reps you can get the better and try to learn and grow from there,” said Schouman. “One of the main reasons we’re out here at this time is to build team chemistry and my job is to do well and be where I need to be and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Schouman has been one of the more consistent performers in the passing game after Reed and Parrish through the OTA sessions and has shown signs that he can handle a full-time tight end role in Schonert’s offense. He’s quickly becoming legitimate competition for Robert Royal.

Too Good to Be True?
I know what you're thinking.  "Brian, it's just OTAs.  Royal's hurt.  Anderson and Fine are still getting used to their new surroundings.  Schouman might just be a placeholder until one of the other three guys is ready to take over."  (Or something like that.)

But there are intriguing facts currently working in Schouman's favor.  Perhaps most importantly of all is that amongst a group of tight ends that are big, lumbering and slow, Schouman is an underrated athlete.  He can play in the backfield, line up traditionally or in the slot, and he has enough speed and body control to be a factor in the seam.  That alone makes him slightly more difficult to game plan for than Royal, Anderson or Fine.

He's also got the benefit of spending a spring working with the team's starting quarterback.  Trent Edwards is still a young quarterback, and young quarterbacks tend to work with players that they're comfortable with.  Considering how much Schouman has worked (successfully) with Edwards this spring, he's got a leg up on his underwhelming running mates in terms of establishing rapport.  That's a huge factor as well.

Will these development surrounding Schouman have a positive impact on not only the tight end position, but Buffalo's offense as a whole?  Clearly, we don't have the answer to that at this time.  It's also still hard to get overly excited about a tight end consistently making plays in a practice setting.  But we know this for sure: a tight end position logjammed with mediocrity has just gotten a lot more interesting, and Schouman stands a very good chance at winning a starting job - or at least a prominent receiving role - with a strong training camp.