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Buffalo Bills 2017 roster evaluation: Tight End

Examining Buffalo’s tight end group heading into the 2017 season.

Charles Clay and Nick O’Leary lead a Buffalo Bills tight end position that will look similar in 2017 than it did a year ago.

Here’s the tight end installment of our Buffalo Bills 2017 roster evaluation series.

Depth Chart

Charles Clay, Nick O’Leary, Logan Thomas, Blake Annen, Wes Saxton, Jason Croom, Keith Towbridge

Charles Clay

Age: 28

2016 Stats: 57 receptions, 552 yards, four touchdowns on 81.9% of Bills offensive snaps (872) in 15 games.

PFF Grade: 72.8

PFF Ranking: 22nd out of 63 tight ends who played at least 275 snaps

Athletic Measurables

Analysis: Charles Clay will likely always been misunderstood or underappreciated, mostly due to the #CharlesClaySweepstakes that occurred between the Bills and Dolphins in the 2015 offseason that led to Buffalo paying him a hefty chunk of change. In this day and age, tight ends are almost solely measured by their receiving statistics, but that doesn’t mean they are “bad” players if they excel elsewhere. In reality, Clay is one of the very few “three-down” tight ends left in the NFL. In 2015, he appeared on 70.9% of the Bills offensive snaps. Last year, that percentage jumped to 81.9. As a blocker, Clay is moderately strong, has consistently sound fundamentals, and uses his quickness to win most leverage and angle battles. He’s eclipsed the 50-catch plateau in both of his seasons in Buffalo, which is solid yet unspectacular. Even if he only catches 50 or so passes for 500-600 yards with a few scores but maintains his blocking prowess, he’ll again be a valuable member of the Bills offense.

Nick O’Leary

Age: 25

2016 Stats: Nine catches and 114 yards on 35% of Bills offensive snaps (373) in 16 games.

PFF Grade: 68.8

PFF Ranking: 26th

Athletic Measurables

Analysis: O’Leary leaves plenty to be desired as an athlete, and his first year plus his second training camp and preseason seemed to make it clear he didn’t have the physical talent to succeed in the NFL. Then, when injuries forced him into a role on game days during the regular season, O’Leary displayed what made him such a stable contributor during his illustrious career at Florida State. While grading the Bills 2016 season, O’Leary routinely stood out as a blocker against bigger, faster, and more athletic defensive players thanks to his technique, lower center of gravity, and tenacity. The Bills will likely look for him to take the next step as a receiver in 2017, but even if he doesn’t, having a quality No. 2 tight end who can eliminate edge players on run plays is a nice luxury for the Bills.

Logan Thomas

Age: 26

2016 Stats: N/A

PFF Grade: N/A

PFF Ranking: N/A

Athletic Measurables

Analysis: By now you know how big of an advocate I am of the predictive powers of athleticism with NFL players. As a tight end, Thomas’ top athletic comparable, at 78.7%, is Rob Gronkowski. Yeah, seriously. Falcons tight end Austin Hooper is No. 2. Jimmy Graham is No. 3. Thomas is a freak for the tight end position, but he’s just learning it. The Bills signed him on November 30 of last year, and he never played a game. While we know much more about him as a quarterback, he did make this awesome touchdown catch on a fade route from Tyrod Taylor at Virginia Tech back in 2010. Thomas’ upside is supremely high.

Blake Annen (UPDATE: Annen was released after this article published)

Age: 26

2016 Stats: N/A

PFF Grade: N/A

PFF Ranking: N/A

Athletic Measurables

Height / Weight: 6041 / 247 (from Pro Day in 2014)

40-Yard Dash: 4.41

Vertical: 34”

Broad: 120”

Short Shuttle: 4.30

Three-Cone: 7.19

Analysis: Pro Day figures should always be taken with a grain of salt, but based on even slightly adjusted times, Annen is an impressive athlete. His time at the University of Cincinnati overlapped with that of Travis Kelce’s, so clearly, Annen wasn’t a major producer at the tight end spot during his Bearcats career. Last summer, after a minicamp in which he turned some heads, Annen was basically non-existent. He’ll need a big training camp to make the team.

Wes Saxton

Age: 24

2016 Stats: N/A

PFF Grade: N/A

PFF Ranking: N/A

Athletic Measurables

Analysis: Saxton is an H-back, receiving tight end who had 96 receptions for 1,126 yards but just one touchdown in his three-year career at South Alabama. Athletically, his second-closest tight end comparable is Garrett Graham, a tight end who spent time with Rick Dennison with the Texans. He appeared in one game for the Jets in 2015 and has no NFL stats in his professional career. If his blocking improves, he has a decent chance to stick as Buffalo’s No. 3 or No. 4 tight end this season. He has practice-squad eligibility.

Jason Croom

Age: 23

Height / Weight: 6042 / 252

2016 Stats: Rookie in 2017

PFF Grade: Rookie in 2017

PFF Ranking: Rookie in 2017

40-Yard Dash: 4.69

Vertical: 34”

Broad: 120”

Short Shuttle: 4.40

Three-Cone: 7.33

Analysis: Croom had a respectable albeit far from reliable collegiate career as a pass-catching option at Tennessee. He had 60 catches for 816 yards with six touchdowns in the three seasons he was on the field for the Volunteers. Interestingly, he was teammates with Bills quarterback Nate Peterman in 2013 and 2014 during a time in which Peterman threw a total of 43 passes before transferring to Pittsburgh. Croom has adequate size and athleticism and isn’t afraid to get head up with defensive ends and linebackers as an in-line blocker. Still though... he’s a long-shot to make the final roster.

Keith Towbridge

Age: 22

Height / Weight: 6036 / 262

40-Yard Dash: 4.72

Vertical: 37.5”

Broad: 125”

Short Shuttle: 4.40

Three-Cone: 7.1

Analysis: Towbridge only had 21 receptions and 283 yards with three touchdowns during his four-year career at Louisville, never really becoming even a secondary or tertiary target for Lamar Jackson over the past two season for the Cardinals. He was primarily used as an H-back and flashed impressive blocking willingness and power at the point of attack. Clearly, Towbridge has some explosive athletic traits but will have to piece together a strong camp to make the roster. Being “ahead” as a blocker could help his cause.

Position Analysis

Like the safety position, Buffalo’s tight end group is a relative weak spot mainly due to its lack of depth. To further the comparison, both groups have a super-versatile somewhat underrated player atop the depth chart. For the safeties its Micah Hyde. For the tight ends its Charles Clay.

I think because of his large contract, people will forever want Clay to be a 70-catch, 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown guy, and he’ll probably never produce at that clip. But he’ll be a semi-reliable pass-catcher at all levels of the field, block on run downs and play around 75-80% of the offensive snaps throughout the season. That’s valuable.

O’Leary came into his own last season, and although we repeatedly were reminded of past offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s love of tight ends, new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison used tight ends frequently in his offenses in Houston and Denver in the past. Expect to see a fair amount of two tight-end sets, and play-action bootlegs with the tight end as the primary target.

Thomas has a long way to go to make an impact, but his size and athleticism cannot be ignored. The rest of the players will have an uphill battle to make the roster, however, I think Saxton is the exact type of H-back-ish tight end Dennison will love to utilize in a specialized role.