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Finding a role for Bills TE Shawn Nelson

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When the Buffalo Bills were able to select Southern Mississippi tight end Shawn Nelson in the fourth round of the 2009 NFL Draft (No. 121 overall), most NFL Draft experts proclaimed the pick a steal, claiming that Nelson had the talent to restore the tight end to prominence in Buffalo's offense. As a rookie last season, Nelson showed flashes of that potential, though a pop-gun offense and Nelson's inability to avoid nagging injuries only allowed him to accumulate 17 receptions in his first NFL season.

Now, new head coach Chan Gailey takes over the reigns of Buffalo's fledgling offense, which could be some cause for concern for a player in Nelson's position. Throughout his career, Gailey has rarely utilized the tight end position in his passing attack, instead using the position more from a blocking perspective. Given Nelson's strengths, that could seriously hinder his development.

However, Gailey's most recent season in the NFL involved a tight end in his offense catching 96 passes, so the door isn't completely shut on Nelson figuring into Gailey's plans offensively. After the jump, we'll take a look at how Gailey has utilized the tight end position in past NFL coaching gigs, and what Nelson needs to do to become a consistent receiving threat in Gailey's offense. Spoiler warning: Nelson really won't need to accomplish a lot, at least not right away.

Gailey has nine years' worth of coordinating and head coaching experience at the NFL level, and only once was the tight end an integral part of his game-planning. You can see his top receiving tight end and their statistics from each of his nine seasons in the NFL below.

Year Title Team Tight End Rec Yds TD
1989 Off. Coordinator Denver Broncos Clarence Kay 21 197 2
1990 Off. Coordinator Denver Broncos Clarence Kay 29 282 0
1996 Off. Coordinator Pittsburgh Steelers Mark Bruener 12 141 0
1997 Off. Coordinator Pittsburgh Steelers Mark Bruener 18 117 6
1998 Head Coach Dallas Cowboys David LaFleur 20 176 2
1999 Head Coach Dallas Cowboys David LaFleur 35 322 7
2000 Off. Coordinator Miami Dolphins Jed Weaver 10 179 0
2001 Off. Coordinator Miami Dolphins Jed Weaver 18 215 2
2008 Off. Coordinator Kansas City Chiefs Tony Gonzalez 96 1,058 10

The only time the tight end was a prominent receiving option in his offense was when he inherited a future Hall of Fame player; it's not a difficult decision to try to get Tony Gonzalez the football. Gailey is, however, responsible for what can be reasonably argued as Gonzalez' best professional season, despite the fact that he was catching passes from Tyler Thigpen, Damon Huard, Brodie Croyle and even Quinn Gray.

Other than that, tight ends have only been red zone threats in Gailey's offenses, and even that has been rare; Mark Bruener's six touchdowns in 1997, and David LaFleur's seven in 1999, were really the only two times tight ends were scoring factors for Gailey until he worked with Gonzalez.

The Gonzalez numbers are encouraging - not because I'm trying to make a Nelson/Gonzalez comparison, but because of the philosophy behind his numbers. Gonzalez and receiver Dwayne Bowe were really the Chiefs' only two viable receiving options that year, and despite the fact that defenses knew this, Gailey was able to get the ball in the hands of those two players a whopping 182 times, including 17 touchdowns.

Given the fact that Buffalo's stable of competitors for the starting receiver spot opposite Lee Evans include unproven commodities such as James Hardy, Steve Johnson, Marcus Easley and Chad Jackson, it's entirely conceivable that Nelson - should he stay healthy - emerge as the second-best receiving threat on the team. (Yes, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller are likely to see a lot of receiving work, too, so they should be counted into this discussion.) Gailey's modus operandi has always been to get the ball to his best playmakers. Nelson doesn't need to do anything other than be a more effective receiving option than the team's young receivers to become a prominent figure in Buffalo's passing offense.

Nelson's versatility will help him; he's athletic enough to line up as a slot receiver in occasion, and Gailey loves versatility in his offensive weapons. The real key here is whether or not Nelson improves as a blocker. Gailey will use his tight ends to block quite frequently, even on passing downs, and if Nelson can acquit himself well in that department, he'll get a lot more playing time. The more he's on the field, the better, obviously, and the more opportunities he'll get to establish himself in this offense.