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Buffalo Bills analysis: the role of tight ends in a Rick Dennison offense

TEs have played a key role in zone run blocking, and in quick-strike passing game

Miami Dolphins v Buffalo Bills Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Rick Dennison, the first-year offensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills, is known to run many two-tight end sets as a staple of his version of the West Coast Offense. Dennison, a former Colorado State tight end, played for nine years in the NFL as a linebacker, and wherever he has served as an offensive coordinator, the team’s tight ends have played a critical role in a his offense.

In a typical season with Dennison as OC, his tight ends have accounted for an average of 68 catches for 824 yards with six touchdowns.

Dennison was twice the offensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos (2006-08 and 2015-16), and also served as OC for the Houston Texans (2010-13). A disciple of Gary Kubiak and Mike Shanahan, Dennison emphasizes the tight end position in both the run and the passing game.

Under Dennison, the Bills are expected to regularly use ’12’ personnel, with one running back and two tight ends. Currently, Buffalo boasts Charles Clay, Nick O’Leary, Logan Thomas, and Khari Lee as its tight ends.

Clay, in his third year of a five-year, $38 million dollar contract, has caught 50 or more passes in each of his two seasons with the Bills. During the 2016 campaign, he led the Bills in receptions (57), totaling 522 yards with four touchdowns. After a slow start, Clay and quarterback Tyrod Taylor were able to establish a nice rapport down the stretch, with Clay catching 18 passes for 209 yards with all four of his touchdowns during a three-game stretch against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, and Miami Dolphins.

O’Leary, a 2015 sixth-round draft choice out of Florida State, has 10 career catches for 151 yards with zero receiving touchdowns. O’Leary has proven himself a reliable blocker, but he has shown glimpses of his potential as a receiver, including catching three passes for 50 yards in a Week 2 preseason game vs. the Philadelphia Eagles.

Thomas, a former star quarterback at Virginia Tech, has transitioned to tight end, and has a solid grasp on a roster spot. Thomas had nine catches for 72 yards in the preseason. Though he lacks experience, his size (6-foot-6, 250 pounds) and athletic ability make him an intriguing red zone target for Taylor. Thomas impressed Buffalo’s coaches during practice.

Lee, who went undrafted in 2015, spent the 2016 season on the Detroit Lions’ practice squad. He is expected to be a strong blocker whenever he sees time on the field.

Here is a look at how tight ends have fared in Dennison’s offenses at his previous stops,.

Denver Broncos

-2006: Tony Scheffler was the Broncos’ leading pass catcher from the tight end position, hauling in 18 passes for 286 yards with four touchdowns. Fellow tight end Stephen Alexander added 18 catches for 160 yards with a pair of TDs.

-2007: Scheffler ranked second on the team in receptions (49) and touchdowns (five), and was third in receiving yards (549). Daniel Graham added 24 catches for 246 yards and a pair of TDs.

-2008: For the third straight year, Scheffler was an outstanding pass-catching option out of the tight end position. Scheffler caught 40 passes for 645 yards (third-most on the team) with three TDs. Graham added 32 catches for 389 yards with four TDs.

-2015: Daniels ranked third on the team in receiving yards (517) and hauled in three TDs, while Vernon Davis added 201 receiving yards on 20 catches. Virgil Green also saw time at tight end, recording 12 catches for 173 yards and one TD.

Houston Texans

-2010: These Texans truly relied on a pair of tight ends in their West Coast offense. Joel Dreessen (36 catches, 518 yards, four TDs) and Owen Daniels (38 catches, 471 yards, two TDs) had similar numbers catching passes from quarterback Matt Schaub in the Texans’ quick-strike offense.

-2011: Daniels led the Texans in catches (54) and receiving yards (677), and added three TDs. Dreessen led the team in TD catches (six) while grabbing 28 passes for 353 yards.

-2012: Daniels led the team in TD catches (six), and was second in receptions (62) and receiving yards (716). James Casey and Garrett Graham, who each saw time at tight end, combined to add 62 catches for 593 yards with six TDs.

-2013: Graham tied for the team lead in TD catches (five) and caught 49 passes for 545 yards, while Daniels added 24 catches for 252 yards with three TDs. Ryan Griffin also saw time at tight end, catching 19 passes for 244 yards and one TD.

To summarize, Buffalo’s tight ends will play a large role in the team’s zone running game, as traditionally they need to prove they’re capable of setting an edge on zone runs, or allowing play-action rollouts by the quarterback. They will also be expected to contribute in the passing attack, which will feature plenty of play-action and easy, short completions.

In the passing game, Dennison’s tight ends recorded three straight 1,000-yard seasons from 2011-13, including combining for 124 catches, 1,309 yards, and 12 TDs in 2012, and 92 catches for 1,030 yards and nine TDs in 2011.

Tight End Productivity Under Rick Dennison

Rick Dennison’s tight end production by season as offensive coordinator

Year Team Rec. Yards TDs
Year Team Rec. Yards TDs
2006 DEN 36 446 6
2007 DEN 73 795 7
2008 DEN 72 1034 7
2010 HOU 74 989 6
2011 HOU 82 1030 9
2012 HOU 124 1309 12
2013 HOU 92 1041 9
2015 DEN 66 718 3
2016 DEN 47 538 1