If you were to approach a Buffalo Bills fan right this moment and ask them how long it has been since the Bills had a receiving threat at the tight end position, the most likely response you would get would be some synonymous variant of the word "forever".
There's a reason that Bills fans are excited about the team's fourth-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. Southern Mississippi tight end Shawn Nelson, even with just a few NFL practices under his belt, represents the most exciting pure talent that the Bills have had at the position in two decades. Not since Keith McKeller have the Bills employed a tight end as athletic and with as much potential as Nelson; as a result, expectations for Nelson are high.
Luckily, the shoes Nelson is being asked to fill aren't large. How bad has it been at tight end in Buffalo? A Bills tight end has led the team in receptions just once in the past twenty years; that was in 1993, when Pete Metzelaars' 68 receptions trumped the 60 put up by receiver Bill Brooks. The Bills have had productive seasons from tight ends over the past two decades, but particularly in the new millennium, Buffalo hasn't fielded a single difference-maker at the position. Let's take a look back at the past 20 years of Buffalo Bills tight ends.
1989 - 1991: the Keith McKeller Era
During this three-year stretch, the Bills would transform from surprisingly resurgent franchise into an elite group that would perennially contend for a Super Bowl berth. It was also during these seasons that the vaunted "K-Gun" offense emerged as the most feared offensive package in the league - and, as you're well aware, that offense was named after McKeller. An excellent athlete, McKeller gave the Bills a vertical threat from the tight end position and further opened up an already explosive offense. Though he shared time with Metzelaars and did not post gaudy numbers during his career, McKeller's influence was significant - if also short-lived.
3-year averages: 33 receptions, 413 yards (12.6 average), 3.3 TD
1992 - 1994: the Pete Metzelaars Era
Metzelaars was fortunate to be the Bills' top tight end during the Bills' glory seasons; he also was the top tight end in 1988, but gave way to McKeller while the glory years were brewing. Metzelaars is widely considered to be the best tight end in recent memory to play in Buffalo, and his stat lines (see below) tend to support that notion. He wasn't flashy, but there was a lot of substance to his game; he produced excellent numbers in a loaded offense without a lot of balls to go around. Pete was an excellent pro, and clearly the best player out of this group.
3-year averages: 49 receptions, 445 yards (9.1 average), 5 TD
1995 - 1997: the Lonnie Johnson Era
A highly touted pro prospect, Johnson was the Bills' second-round draft pick in 1994 out of Florida State. He was considered an excellent athlete that, in the waning years of QB Jim Kelly's career, would keep Buffalo's tight end position viable as the team made desperate, last-gasp attempts to get Kelly and his teammates a Super Bowl ring. That wasn't to be, clearly, but as much-maligned as Johnson was for dropping passes (a common theme in recent seasons), Johnson's statistical averages during his three-year run actually weren't awful. Considering what the Bills have fielded over the past six years, I think we'd happily take a Lonnie Johnson stat line these days.
3-year averages: 45 receptions, 434 yards (9.6 average), 1 TD
1998 - 2002: the Jay Riemersma Era
Riemersma, a college quarterback at Michigan for a time, became the Bills' "poor man's" version of Metzelaars as Doug Flutie stepped in for Kelly during an era of transition in Buffalo. Riemersma spent five seasons as Buffalo's leading pass-catcher at tight end - the longest run of any single player in the last twenty years - and though the stat line dropped a tad with the ultra-productive Kelly out of town, Riemersma is, in general, remembered fondly by a Bills fan base that loved watching him play and appreciated his red zone abilities.
5-year averages: 36 receptions, 419 yards (11.8 average), 3.6 TD
2003 - 2005: the Mark Campbell Era
Congratulations, ladies and gentlemen - we have officially reached the low point in Bills tight end history. Playing alongside another ultra-productive quarterback in Drew Bledsoe, Campbell managed to reach statistical lows among this not-so-elite group. Best known for a three-touchdown performance in a Bills victory over the St. Louis Rams in 2004, Campbell did little else to distinguish himself in his time in Buffalo. It was during the Mark Campbell Era that fan outcries for a nifty young talent at the position began growing louder.
3-year averages: 23 receptions, 227 yards (9.9 average), 2 TD
2006 - 2008: the Robert Royal Era
I don't think we need to get too in-depth here; Royal was released this March prior to the free agent signing period after three frustrating and highly unproductive years in Buffalo. He was a marginal statistical upgrade over Campbell - and he certainly didn't have as much to work with at the quarterback position - but change was needed.
3-year averages: 27 receptions, 277 yards (10.3 average), 2.3 TD
Overall - even while considering the consistency and solid production of players like Metzelaars and Riemersma - this group hasn't been all that great. There have certainly been contributors to some historically potent offenses, but none of these players can be considered central offensive weapons. That's what Buffalo has been missing, particularly as they've repeatedly attempted in vain to develop young quarterbacks. Is Nelson finally the guy to end the downward trend at this position? Time will tell. But he certainly won't need to do much to be an upgrade here.