Absent hard news on Chan Gailey's attempts to piece together an assistant coaching staff, we're going to continue breaking down the Buffalo Bills' current roster in our State of the Bills Roster series. I know; you'd rather be talking about who our next defensive coordinator is rather than Buffalo's tight ends. I completely understand, and am right there with you. But it appears we'll have to play the waiting game, unless this posting, scheduled for 1:45 PM on Monday, tempts the football gods into throwing hard news our way.
About two weeks back, I penned a piece in this space imploring Buffalo to re-discover the tight end position in its offense. That article was written shortly before Gailey was introduced as Buffalo's head coach; needless to say, the fact that the Bills hired an offensive-minded head coach who professes to build schemes around the talents of his players brings a little optimism to the outlook of this position in Buffalo. That is, if Gailey can live up to his word. Oh, and find a quarterback. And an offensive line.
Buffalo does have some talent at this position, although what the new coaching staff expects in general out of the position could severely impact how it's addressed this off-season. Regardless, things are looking up for one or two of Buffalo's young tight ends, in particular a player entering his second season.
What the new regime might be looking for
It's tough to say at this point, particularly because of Gailey's words. The previous regime, as a general rule, preferred "well-rounded" tight ends that could stay on the field for all downs, catch a few passes and, most importantly, block. That preference was a big reason the team worked the phones hard last April to try to make a move to land current Detroit tight end Brandon Pettigrew.
Typically, if a coaching staff can get both in one player, they'll take it. But the Bills were a little out of character last year, bringing in a pass-catcher in need of a tremendous amount of blocking work in the fourth round.
I'd expect that trend to continue under Gailey's watch. Short of finding an elite TE prospect like Pettigrew, the Bills might look to complement their pass-catcher - a truly excellent talent, by the way - with some rotational blocking-type guys that can work the red zone. Either way, this position could be status quo, or it could see a pretty massive overhaul from a depth standpoint. Time will tell, and it's hard to predict which way Gailey and company will lean at this point.
The Bills currently employ five tight ends, even though one of them was on and off the roster more frequently than Gibran Hamdan.
Shawn Nelson. Allow me to gush for a moment. Trust me, it'll only be a moment. I think Shawn Nelson has the raw talent to become one of the NFL's most dominant tight ends. There, I said it. That's not a prediction, just my feelings on his talent level. It'll take good coaching, a good game plan, and a good quarterback. Nelson has the type of talent to become a focal point of this offense, and displayed the type of athleticism to make mind-bending catches look routine in a rather unproductive rookie year. No predictions, only moderate level excitement - this guy has a ways to go. But his potential is outstanding.
Contract status: 3 years remaining. Owed $1.44M in base salaries.
Derek Schouman. Spent most of the 2009 season on Injured Reserve after starting the season off on fire (9 catches, 103 yards in under two games). Given his RFA status and his quick start last season, Schouman is at least likely to get a long look from the new coaching staff. But there's no way he should get preferential treatment to Nelson.
Contract status: Restricted Free Agent
Derek Fine. I really like Derek Fine. I'm not going to gush the way I did at the top of this section of the article, but Fine is a tough football player, and I like tough football players. I think he's a really good depth player that will always be able to help you out on game days, no matter the size of his role.
Contract status: 2 years remaining. Owed $1.025M in base salaries.
Jonathan Stupar. Made it onto Buffalo's roster after a stellar pre-season and the injury to Schouman. Was highly average playing second fiddle to Nelson the majority of the season. Still young and lays it all on the line, but I don't see much upside.
Contract status: Exclusive Rights Free Agent
Joe Klopfenstein. I'm not sure he even counts. He doesn't block well, and although his forte is supposed to be as a receiver, he's not particularly effective in that department, either.
Contract status: Restricted Free Agent (UFA with new CBA).
Who stays? Who goes?
Nelson stays. At a talent-starved position, he's the lone bright spot. I think Fine stays too - he's a tough S.O.B., can block and catch, and plays very well on special teams. Those players are nice to have around. I don't see Klopfenstein getting a training camp invite, and while Stupar probably will, he's a long shot to make the team. Schouman is the wild card - if Gailey and the offensive staff want to get bigger and better at this position, Schouman might be the guy to leave.
If I were a betting man (and no, I'm not)...
Nelson will be penciled in as the starter, and unless the team runs into an unforeseen BPA-type situation in the draft or via free agency, it'll stay that way. Nelson is clearly the most talented player at the position, and absolutely has the ability to become a huge factor for an NFL offense. If Gailey is true to his word, Nelson could become a focal point of the passing game.
Names to keep an eye on
Right now, I'm leaning towards the Bills being a little more conservative at this position while they try to address bigger need areas. I won't throw any names out there for you as top-notch considerations, but there are definitely players available this year, particularly in the draft, that will make teams happy.