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Buffalo Bills solid at tight end, head into training camp with depth behind Charles Clay

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The Bills have a good starter, good backup, and solid depth at the tight end position.

One of the best friends to an inexperienced quarterback can be a big-bodied tight end to present a safe target. The Buffalo Bills have three inexperienced quarterbacks on their roster, making the tight end position of extreme importance to the passing game even before you look at the question marks at running back and wide receiver.

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.

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: signed; $9 million cap hit (zero cap savings if cut)
  • Age: Turned 29 on 2/13/18
  • 2017 Playing time: 575 snaps (54.66% of offensive snaps), 3 ST snaps (.69%)
  • Key 2017 statistics: 74 targets, 49 receptions, 558 yards (11.4 YPC), 2 TD, 1 fumble

If you don’t know what Clay brings to the table, check out this All-22 analysis from earlier in the offseason. He makes mistakes, sure, but he is consistent and willing to block, catch, and run routes. He has seen six targets per game since joining the Bills and was a key cog for each QB and coordinator during his stint in Buffalo.

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.

Nick O’Leary

  • Contract status: signed; $705,000 exclusive right free agent contract
  • Age: Will turn 26 on 8/31/18
  • 2017 Playing time: 547 snaps (52% of offensive snaps), 77 ST snaps (17.26%)
  • Key 2017 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 an inconsistent blocker with good hands and a great motor we profiled in this analysis of the All-22 film from last season.

It could be time for O’Leary to take the next step, but he’ll need to improve on his blocking to make it happen.

Logan Thomas

  • Contract status: signed; $790,000 exclusive right free agent contract
  • Age: Turned 27 on 7/1/18
  • 2017 Playing time: 15 snaps (14.73% of offensive snaps), 48 ST snaps 10.98%)
  • Key 2017 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 in a 30-27 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2017. He is still incredibly raw at the position, but his natural athleticism makes him an interesting case for consideration.

Because of his previous roster status, many consider him the leader for the third tight end position but it wouldn’t surprise us if he failed to fend off one of the lesser-known names on the list for a roster spot.

Khari Lee

  • Contract status: signed; $705,000 cap hit (no guaranteed money)
  • Age: Turned 26 on 1/16/18
  • 2017 Playing time: 47 snaps (4.47% of offensive snaps), 9 ST snaps (2.06%)
  • Key 2017 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: signed; $557,500 cap hit ($552,500 cap savings if cut)
  • Age: Turned 23 on 5/21/18
  • 2017 Playing time: N/A
  • Key 2017 statistics: N/A

Towbridge spent the 2017 season on injured reserve, which should actually be a positive for him. Instead of reaching an injury settlement with the depth player as is the case in most situations, they chose to keep him. He’s a sleeper candidate for the roster.

Jason Croom

  • Contract status: signed; $480,000 cap hit on reserve/future contract
  • Age: Turned 24 on 2/28/18
  • 2017 Playing time: N/A
  • Key 2017 statistics: N/A

The former UDFA Croom was placed on injured reserve in August but then released from IR. With a short-term injury, he could have signed with another team relatively soon after but remained unsigned until the Bills brought him back to their practice squad in November.

Training Camp Outlook

The Bills felt comfortable enough with the players at the position to not add any new bodies to the mix. The high-priced Clay has the second-largest cap hit on the team and fourth-highest in the league, but his spot seems pretty secure for 2018. Behind Clay, O’Leary seems to be a lock to make the roster and then a bunch of more inexperienced players will be fighting for a role.

Don’t be surprised if the Bills keep four tight ends with a fifth from the list headed to the practice squad as they did a year ago. They have a solid group of young talent at the position and a starter who has missed games due to injury. Only three were active on game days last year, with Lee blocking more and Thomas catching more passes.