The Bills took a big hit during their preseason loss to the Washington Redskins on Friday, losing tight end Chris Gragg for the season to a torn ACL. While Gragg has never been a focal point of the offense (although I thought he’d have a shot at contributing), the loss stings for a team woefully short on quality depth at the tight end position.
Enter Glenn Gronkowski.
The UDFA fullback has the pedigree, and the hometown roots, but does he have a shot at the 53-man roster? Until Friday, he was probably on the outside looking in, but the loss of Gragg opens up a spot that Gronk can fill.
So, how does an injury to a tight end affect a fullback?
First, it’s important to remember how the tight end works in the Greg Roman offense. The flashy pseudo-receivers that were ushered in with the arrival of Glenn’s elder brother don’t have as much value in an offense where even the passer is a major running threat. Indeed, the signing of Charles Clay (a former fullback himself) from the Dolphins before last season was largely triggered by his ability to be an effective blocker as well as a solid receiver. Someone with Gronkowski’s blocking ability (which he showed off on Jonathan Williams’ touchdown run on Friday) could easily serve as a tight end in Roman’s system.
There’s also the matter of Jerome Felton to consider. At this point, the midsummer murmur that Felton could find himself on the street before the season starts is long gone; if Felton missed the 53, it would be pretty surprising. Rex Ryan, though, is on record as saying that he wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to keeping both players on the roster. He didn’t go so far as to pre-emptively name Gronkowski to the roster, but hey, the more big guys who can move, the better.
Now, back to the Gragg injury. Outside of Clay, Ryan hasn’t been blown away by any of the tight ends:
Ryan says nobody was close to Chris Gragg as the team's No. 2 tight end. #Bills— Jay Skurski (@JaySkurski) August 28, 2016
The only solid bet to make the roster after Clay is free-agent pickup Jim Dray, who had a good chance at the roster regardless of Gragg’s situation. Now, he’s all but a lock to make the final roster, but Roman is going to want to roll with more than two tight ends. That leaves a spot that is presumably up to either Nick O’Leary, Blake Annen, or Jimmay Mundine. O’Leary has been inconsistent since the Bills took him in the sixth round of the draft last year, and his poor showing in Washington should have sealed his fate. That leaves Annen and Mundine.
The smart money seems to be on Annen at this point. He’s been in the league for a while, he’s huge (6’4", 247 lbs.), and he’s had a good amount of opportunities this preseason. He has had a couple of drops, however, and hasn’t been a huge standout to this point. If he has a hold on a roster spot at this point, it’s only by default because he’s already listed at the tight end position. Mundine, on the other hand, hasn’t been given as much of an opportunity as either Annen or Gronk so far, and is probably even farther from a roster spot given that he wasn’t even on the roster until three weeks ago.
Of course there’s always the possibility of the team looking to a free-agent castoff at the position. Definitely.
#Bills HC Rex Ryan: It's definitely a possibility that they'll look outside the organization for another TE— Joe Buscaglia (@JoeBuscaglia) August 28, 2016
The deadline for teams to cut down from 90 to 75 players is Tuesday. The Bills close out the preseason two days after that. In that situation, the team would either be bringing in a player who couldn’t make it through the preseason with their original team, or they’d be picking up a victim of the final cutdown after the preseason. In that case, their first action with the team would be the season opener. That player wouldn’t need to have a huge grasp on the playbook, but it’s still far from an ideal situation.
Could Gronk really fill Gragg’s shoes, though? He did split out wide against the Colts late in the game, catching a pass for no gain in the fourth quarter. He also has three carries for 11 yards, for what that’s worth. He’s not going to be a star, but the team seems comfortable putting the ball in his hands, something that can’t be said for Felton. He’s not quite as big as Annen (6’3", 234 lbs.), but he does seem to move quicker and his versatility gives him an edge against his main competition.
Thursday’s finale against Detroit will be an important game, although probably not an entertaining one. Last year, Rex cited the game as the main reason that UDFA A.J. Tarpley made the 53-man roster. It wouldn’t be surprising at all to see Gronkowski use the same game to make a similar statement and produce a similar outcome.