Entering the 2017 season, Nick O’Leary was best known for being the grandson of legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus. He also does not wear gloves. If the Buffalo Bills (3-2) are to experience success with their passing game this year, O’Leary is going to have to step up and contribute as a pass catcher following the news that Charles Clay, Tyrod Taylor’s favorite target, will miss several weeks after injuring his knee against Cincinnati.
Clay tore his meniscus and sprained the MCL in his left knee making a catch in the first quarter. He is expected to miss several weeks recovering from the injury, meaning Taylor must move forward without the services of Clay and receiver Jordan Matthews (dislocated thumb) for the next few weeks.
Buffalo, which entered the season with modest expectations after trading away No. 1 wide receiver Sammy Watkins and top cornerback Ronald Darby (plus the sudden retirement of wideout Anquan Boldin), took the league by surprise in winning three of its first four games. After posting back-to-back impressive wins over the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons, reality set in for the Buffalo Bills during a 20-16 road loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
More surprising? The Bills assumed first place in the AFC East with a rushing attack that, led by LeSean McCoy, had underachieved compared to last year, when Buffalo’s offensive line paved the way for a ground game that led the league in yards per game (164.4).
With Matthews sidelined with a thumb injury, Clay was expected to continue his run as Taylor’s favorite downfield target, and with good reason. Dating back to the final four games of the 2016 season, Clay has hauled in 41 passes for 487 yards with six touchdowns, figures that lead all Bills receivers. This year, Clay has 20 catches for 258 yards with two touchdowns, leading the team in both receiving yards and touchdowns while trailing McCoy (27) in receptions.
As for replacing Clay, hopefully the Bills can find a way to utilize the talents of O’Leary, a 2015 sixth-round draft choice out of Florida State. O’Leary entered the 2017 season with 10 career catches for 151 yards and no receiving touchdowns.
This year, in a small sample size, O’Leary has caught seven of nine targets for 107 yards, an average of 15.3 yards per catch. He ranks fourth on the team in both catches and receiving yards, and is third in yards per catch.
Against the Bengals, O’Leary showed glimpses of his abilities as a receiver. On a first-and-10 from the Cincinnati 49-yard line, Taylor connected with O’Leary on a 19-yard strike that set up Stephen Hauschka’s 31-yard field goal that pulled Buffalo within 7-3.
O’Leary, who has proven himself a reliable blocker during his brief Bills’ career, finished with five receptions for 54 yards (an average of 10.8 yards/catch) against Cincinnati. He led the team in receiving yards and was second in targets (six) and receptions.
The Bills also have Logan Thomas, a former star quarterback at Virginia Tech who has transitioned to tight end. Though he lacks experience, his size (6-foot-6, 250 pounds) and athletic ability make him an intriguing red zone target for Taylor. Thomas has one career catch for three yards, during the loss to Cincinnati.
Khari Lee (one career catch for seven yards) was claimed by the Bills off waivers at the beginning of September but has been inactive for each game to this point. On the practice squad, Ryan O’Malley was on and off the Oakland Raiders roster and practice squad in 2016 before being released this September.
As for Clay’s injury, a four- to six-week recovery from the surgery he underwent Monday is normal, but recovery times can vary greatly for someone rehabbing from a similar injury.