When the Buffalo Bills selected Southern Miss TE Shawn Nelson with their fourth-round pick (No. 121 overall) this past April, many draft experts applauded the selection. Nelson, at one point projected to go as soon as the second round, presented the Bills - a team that hasn't had a legitimate tight end threat in years - with a tremendous value selection that could contribute immediately, and more importantly, who wouldn't need to start right away.
That time has quickly come to an end. Starting tight end Derek Schouman has been put on season-ending Injured Reserve, and although second-year man Derek Fine is a very capable blocker, he's still vastly unproven as a receiver. On a Bills team full of receiving talent, however, it is crucial that their rookie tight end - who is currently dealing with an injury himself, by the way - pick up the slack at tight end.
For the first time in quite some time, the tight end has become a viable part of Buffalo's passing attack. No other single player has been targeted more by QB Trent Edwards in Buffalo's first two games this season than RB Fred Jackson, who has been thrown to 15 times. Bills receivers have been thrown to 24 times (with Lee Evans and Terrell Owens getting 19 of those looks; Josh Reed and Roscoe Parrish the rest). Add in the 16 targets that Schouman and Nelson got in Weeks 1-2, and the tight end position literally accounted for about 29% of Edwards' throws - not a high number, certainly, but undoubtedly a significant one.
In his third season out of Boise State, Schouman had emerged as a nice safety valve for Edwards. As it stands today, Schouman - who, again, is lost for the season - is second on the team with 9 receptions and 103 yards (both figures eclipsed only by Jackson). And although Nelson himself got off to a strong start with two catches and a touchdown in his first professional game, Schouman was without doubt "the guy" at tight end.
Now, the rookie needs to step up. He missed more than three quarters' worth of the Tampa Bay win with a sprained shoulder, but he has returned to practice in preparation for Week 3, albeit on a limited basis. He's only been targeted five times by Edwards, but has produced when called upon. He's also shown willingness as a blocker (though he's shown a lack of polish there, too). He still doesn't need to be an every-down tight end - really, Fine is quite good in that department - but he does need to pick up where Schouman leaves off as a receiver.
Passing game still a work in progress
We can't exactly look at this situation as Nelson needing to replace a pretty important cog in a perfectly functioning passing attack. Edwards and company have been good through two games; if Buffalo gets 220 yards, two scores and minimal turnovers out of this attack on a weekly basis, they're going to win a lot of football games. But there are some things that need to change - and we've discussed those already this week.
Owens and Evans need more targets and, far more importantly, more production. That's likely to occur with Josh Reed ailing (he has yet to practice this week); Roscoe Parrish is working through an ankle injury as well. It'd be nice, too, to see Steve Johnson get some reps (and with Reed hurt, that opportunity might come this week), and Jackson will remain a large part of the passing offense as well.
Given how defenses are playing Buffalo at the moment - taking away the deep ball and putting lots of double coverage on Owens and Evans - and given the way Edwards prefers to operate as a quarterback, however, it's imperative that the Bills maintain as many quality Tier 2 (read: not Owens, Evans or Jackson) receiving threats as possible. The slot receivers and running backs will get their looks, but the efficiency of the passing game dwindles a bit if there is no production from the tight ends. Fine can play, but again, he's highly unproven. Forget about Jonathan Stupar. Buffalo's most talented tight end is Nelson, and if he can capably fill the safety valve role Schouman vacates, Buffalo's offense should continue to click, no matter what defenses throw against us.