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Buffalo Bills draft needs: TE upgrade doesn't equal Scott Chandler departure

Buffalo Bills fans have wanted an upgrade at tight end for years, and it's reached a fever pitch in 2013 - but why should that mean that the team can't re-sign free agent starter Scott Chandler?

Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

Even now, four months before the start of the 2014 NFL Draft, Buffalo Bills fans are adamant that the team should upgrade their tight end position. It's a role that has long been ignored by the team - they haven't drafted a tight end earlier than Round 3 since 2005 (Kevin Everett), or earlier than Round 2 since 1994 (Lonnie Johnson) - and it's a sore spot for fans desperate to see impact at the position.

Somehow, that desire for an upgrade at tight end - which seems to be universally supported at this point - has turned into the team needing to move on from Scott Chandler, the unrestricted free agent that has caught 134 passes and 14 touchdowns since becoming a full-time starter in 2011. He led the team with 53 receptions and 655 receiving yards in 2013.

In reality, it might be prudent for the Bills to re-sign Chandler and find an impact player at the tight end position. At present, the team lacks any intriguing athletic ability at the position minus 2013 seventh-round project Chris Gragg, but that athlete - if they're able to find one this spring - looks better on paper working with Chandler and blocking specialist Lee Smith, instead of Smith alone. (Tony Moeaki, the former Round 3 pick and starter in Kansas City with an injury history, will get a shot in training camp next summer, but shouldn't be counted on as a long-term solution.)

More than addressing a specific position, the Bills need a receiving option that forces defenses to match coverages with where he is on the field. That "matchup receiver" can be a receiver or a tight end; it really doesn't matter. The team just needs to find that type of player to speed the development of EJ Manuel (and give him a bail-out option), to more easily dictate how defenses play against their passing offense, and to kick-start the creative aspects of Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett's offensive system.

(Imagine, for instance, the Bills finding a tight end athletic enough to use with C.J. Spiller the way New Orleans uses Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles in conjunction. A shiver should be going down your spine right now.)

In concept, however, the Bills are still first and foremost a running offense. They led the league in rushing attempts per game in 2013, and ranked second in rushing yards per game. That is their identity. A logical point of growth for the offense, then, would be more frequent use of two tight end sets, to better set up the play-action game. That's easier to pull off when you have three tight ends with utility on the team, which could be reason enough to think about retaining Chandler.

When the Bills re-signed Chandler after his "breakout" 2011 season, they gave him a two-year deal with a $1.25 million signing bonus, a combined $2.85 million in base salary, and cap hits under $3 million in both years of the contract. It might cost a bit more to keep him this time around - his agent can play the "leading receiver" card, after all - but it's hard to imagine that retaining him would be cost-prohibitive, even with more important free agents to attend to.

If the Bills were to draft an athlete and let Chandler walk, things would not necessarily change from an approach standpoint: they'd still have an average to poor blocker running with the ones (though obviously, they'd have made a jump in athleticism there), and bringing Smith onto the field would telegraph a max protection or a run. If Chandler is part of that tight end rotation, however, then they have the option to use three different two-tight end packages with NFL-caliber personnel - or use all three at once, depending on how talented their new guy is.

This is all food for thought. Chandler is a good football player, but part of the reason fans are so willing to move on from him in the first place is that he's fairly average in every conceivable way. But as GM Doug Whaley said at the team's year-end press conference, they are in the business of retaining good football players - and if they keep Chandler and find that necessary matchup receiver, as they should, then they could make life easier for their developing quarterback and their embattled play-caller, Hackett.

At the very least, seeking an upgrade at the position shouldn't automatically equal a Chandler ouster.