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Buffalo Bills in a good place at tight end with Charles Clay, Nick O’Leary

How Brandon Beane decides to play the restricted free agent game will dictate the Bills’ moves here

One thing about the Buffalo Bills’ passing game, specifically with regard to quarterback Tyrod Taylor, that was often mentioned prior to 2017 was an inability to find targets over the middle. In 2015 and 2016, the Bills struggled to find their tight ends, with Taylor often appearing hesitant to throw the ball over the middle of the field. However, in 2017, the Bills’ tight end group saw an increase in target volume.

Bills’ quarterbacks targeted the tight ends 99 times in 2015, 103 times in 2016, and 115 times in 2017. Charles Clay accounted for 238 of those 317 targets, and he has been in the top-three in targets among all Buffalo pass-catchers since signing with the Bills. Whether due to a lack of talent at the wide receiver position, a lack of rapport with the receivers, or just another shift in Taylor’s game, the tight ends were a larger focal point of the Bills’ passing offense this season.

In our latest look at the state of the Bills’ roster, we examine the tight end position, one that should be solid moving forward, but a lot will depend on what the front office decides to do with the team’s restricted free agents.

Charles Clay

  • Contract status for 2018: signed; $9 million cap hit (zero cap savings if cut)
  • Age: 28 (29 on 2/13/18)
  • Playing time: 575 snaps (54.66% of offensive snaps), 3 ST snaps (.69%)
  • Key statistics: 74 targets, 49 receptions, 558 yards (11.4 YPC), 2 TD, 1 fumble

Clay has consistently been a fixture in Buffalo’s passing attack since he left the Miami Dolphins after the 2014 season. He averages right around 6 targets per game, although he would have easily blown that number away had it not been for a knee injury suffered against the Cincinnati Bengals, which cost him 3 games earlier in the season. Whether or not his play is worth his $9 million cap hit, there is no purpose in cutting him—doing so would cost the team money, and his play has remained solid enough that retaining him makes sense. (They would save $4.5 million on their salary cap in 2018 by making him a post-June 1 cut, but that hit would then be applied to 2019’s cap.)

Clay is a sound blocker, he uses his hands well in securing receptions, and he is versatile enough that he can be used on the line, flanked out wide, and in the slot. With new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s expertise coming in the way of tight ends (he served as Bill Belichick’s tight ends coach for the New England Patriots before leaving to coordinate the University of Alabama’s offense), Clay could be in line for a breakout season in 2018.

Khari Lee

  • Contract status for 2018: signed; $705,000 cap hit (no guaranteed money)
  • Age: 25 (26 on 1/16/18)
  • Playing time: 47 snaps (4.47% of offensive snaps), 9 ST snaps (2.06%)
  • Key statistics: N/A

More often than not, Lee was a healthy scratch for the Bills. When he did manage to find his way onto the field, he was used as a blocker, not a receiver. While he is under contract for 2018, counting him as a definite part of the roster is a stretch.

Keith Towbridge

  • Contract status for 2018: signed; $557,500 cap hit ($552,500 cap savings if cut)
  • Age: 22 (23 on 5/21/18)
  • Playing time: N/A
  • Key statistics: N/A

Jason Croom

  • Contract status for 2018: signed; $480,000 cap hit on reserve/future contract
  • Age: 23 (24 on 2/28/18)
  • Playing time: N/A
  • Key statistics: N/A

Both of the players listed above signed with the Bills as undrafted rookies; neither of them appeared in a regular season game with the team. Towbridge is a big-bodied, traditional tight end whose preseason came to a premature end due to injury. Croom is a converted wide receiver in the Evan Engram mold (although he isn’t nearly the athlete Engram is) who would represent a major project.

Nick O’Leary

  • Contract status for 2018: unsigned; ERFA
  • Age: 25 (26 on 8/31/18)
  • Playing time: 547 snaps (52% of offensive snaps), 77 ST snaps (17.26%)
  • Key statistics: 32 targets, 22 receptions, 322 yards (14.6 YPC), 2 TD, 1 fumble

Jack Nicklaus’s grandson had the best season of his career in 2017, with all of his receiving statistics representing career-high totals. He filled in nicely for Clay when the latter injured his knee, and he continued to see time even when Clay returned from injury. He is a solid blocker with good hands and a great motor.

The question becomes whether or not the Bills think highly enough of O’Leary to keep him around. What makes that decision far simpler is O’Leary’s status as an exclusive-rights free agent. Even though he entered the league in 2015, the only way a player can gain service time towards accruing a full season is if he is on a team’s 53-man roster. In his rookie season, O’Leary spent the first 13 weeks of the season on Buffalo’s practice squad, and he was only active for 4 games; the NFL standard for a full season is 6 games. Being that the ERFA tender is typically a league-minimum salary for one year - and he isn’t allowed to negotiate with other teams if they offer him a contract - the Bills would be foolish not to tender their gloveless backup tight end.

Logan Thomas

  • Contract status for 2018: unsigned; ERFA
  • Age: 26 (27 on 7/1/18)
  • Playing time: 15 snaps (14.73% of offensive snaps), 48 ST snaps 10.98%)
  • Key statistics: 9 targets, 7 receptions, 67 yards (9.6YPC), 1 TD

Thomas has been a two-year project for the Bills, as he continues his NFL career conversion from quarterback to tight end. He caught his first career touchdown this season in a 30-27 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He is still incredibly raw at the position, but his natural athleticism makes him an interesting case for consideration.

As he is also an exclusive-rights free agent, the Bills can (and should) tender him in order to retain his services. Due to the amount of time he spent on practice squads due both in part to his status as a developmental quarterback and a tight end in transition, he also falls well short of having 3 years of NFL service time. While not as great a lock as O’Leary, I think it would be wise for Buffalo to bring Thomas back in 2018.

Offseason Outlook

I don’t think that much needs to be done here. Clay is entrenched as the top tight end for at least another season, and the team should certainly look to keep O’Leary in the fold. With a $9 million starting tight end, it would be nice to pay the other 3 tight ends on the roster less than $3 million combined.

If the team tenders both O’Leary and Thomas, then Lee will probably battle it out with Thomas for the last active spot on game days, just as he did this season. If the Bills feel that a different option is necessary, they could either look outside the organization or choose to elevate one of their other options (Croom or Towbridge) to replace Lee and Thomas. The team shouldn’t overthink this one. Going into 2018 with a solid starter, a capable backup, a dynamic athlete, and a sound blocker should be just fine.

With all the changes necessary in other spots on the roster, it would be nice to see the team maintain continuity with one of the stronger positional groups on the roster. Clay and O’Leary are a solid 1-2 combination, and they should be back in 2018.