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Buffalo Bills 2014 training camp battles: tight end

Scott Chandler is back on a two-year deal and the Bills didn't draft a tight end, as many expected, but is his starting job safe?

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Spor

Every spring, Buffalo Bills fans clamor for an upgrade at the tight end position. That desire reached something of a fever pitch this past May, as the Bills were connected to (and showed interest in) North Carolina prospect Eric Ebron as a potential first-round pick. The team obviously went a different route, trading up to draft Sammy Watkins, and the Bills currently don't employ a tight end that wasn't with the team in 2013.

That doesn't mean things won't change at tight end, though. The possibility exists that the position could expand in the offense if more players prove themselves worthy of playing time, or contract if the opposite occurs. It would not be terribly surprising if a new starter emerged, either.

The incumbent

It is more likely than not - perhaps even significantly so - that Scott Chandler will remain the Bills' starting tight end. He's back on a two-year deal after a brief flirtation with Detroit in free agency. (It was Detroit that ended up picking Ebron, by the way.)

Chandler was the Bills' leading receiver last season, setting career highs with 53 receptions and 655 yards, and adding two touchdowns. Though not the best space athlete or run blocker, Chandler has done an acceptable enough job with the latter to stay in the lineup, and his size and length make up for the former. He remains a reliable safety valve for the Bills' young quarterbacks - he dropped just four passes in 2013 on 81 targets - but isn't the type of player around which defenses game plan by any stretch.

Those limitations will always leave the door open for the calls for improvement at tight end, but reliable is reliable, and the Bills can do far worse than Chandler as a starter. He enters training camp with a pretty firm grip on the starting job.

The shot in the dark

Tony Moeaki was a college teammate of Chandler's at Iowa, and upon entering the NFL in 2010 - he was drafted to help replace the one and only Tony Gonzalez in Kansas City - he enjoyed a solid rookie season of 47 receptions, 556 yards, and three scores.

It's been all downhill from there for the former third-round pick. A season-ending injury late in the preseason cost him the entire 2011 season, and his production slowed in 2012 upon his return. Kansas City also planned to use Kevin Boss a lot that season, but Boss landed on IR in Week 2, and Moeaki retained his starting job, contributing just 33 receptions. He began the 2013 season on IR, again, after a fractured shoulder during the exhibition season, eventually signing with the Bills last December. Moeaki dressed for the Bills' final two games, but did not play any snaps on offense.

As Chandler missed spring practices due first to his recovery from knee surgery, and then to a family tragedy, Moeaki saw plenty of first-team work in May and June. He is the most well-rounded talent on the team at the position, and therefore offers upside - if he can stay healthy, and if he can earn a chunk of playing time away from Chandler. The Bills took a reasonable risk on Moeaki last winter, and it could pay off in a productive role player (or more) this season.

The role player

Speaking of role players, Lee Smith may have more job security than any Bills tight end heading into the new season. That's not to say that he's in for a bigger role or anything; his role is just the most clearly defined. The Bills are a run-first offense, and Smith has carved out a fairly prominent role as a blocking specialist, playing nearly double the number of snaps that blocking fullback Frank Summers played last season. Smith offers little to nothing as a pass catcher, but with so much unsettled around him, it seems quite likely that we'll see him on the field a lot again this season in his blocking role.

These are the three main competitors for playing time, as all are experienced options that bring a fairly diverse skill set to the table. If Moeaki can stay healthy, his presence could lead to tight ends playing more on a per-snap basis in 2014 than they did last year. That's a pretty big "if," of course, and if he can't stay healthy, it will open up the door for former seventh-round pick Chris Gragg to try to crack the playing time rotation. Not only could someone step up to push Chandler for the starting job, but there could be jockeying for position at a deeper and more featured role in Nathaniel Hackett's system.