In many ways, Buffalo Bills tight end Nick O’Leary has already outplayed expectations. Entering his fourth year in the NFL, O’Leary is set to move beyond the league-average career length. This is especially notable with O’Leary being selected in the sixth round of the 2015 NFL Draft and he was cut by the Bills after his rookie preseason. After he was re-signed in December, O’Leary’s rookie year saw appearances in four games, far from securing a spot on the team going forward. Since then, he’s played in all but one contest, reaching the point where he’d be a surprise cut.
Nick O’Leary had 22 catches on 32 targets in 2017. A solid 14.6 yards per reception and two touchdowns aren’t too shabby for a second-string player on a team that emphasizes the run well above the pass. Besides performing well as a receiver in limited opportunities, how has O’Leary acquitted himself?
We’ll start with some bad and good in one play. Readers might have zeroed in on the fact that I’m all about reaction time, and that’s the first thing to note here. It won’t be highlighted in every play (feel free to look for it anyway), but Nick O’Leary is often slow off the snap. Keep this in mind for when we discuss other weaknesses later. You’ll have some other opportunities with better angles to see this, but O’Leary makes two very subtle moves which result in him being open on a deep route. He dips his left shoulder on the way out to avoid contact with the defender and pulls what I’ll call the “signature” O’Leary move heading deep. O’Leary loves to run right at linebackers or defensive backs and “shift lanes” at the last second to blow by them. This is often accompanied by a very fast swim move to limit their ability to shadow him on the run. Because of well-timed usage of subtle moves such as these, O’Leary gets open. A lot.
O’Leary is better off the snap on this play, just barely behind Cordy Glenn. For a physical reference, he’s matched up with Kony Ealy. While Ealy is bigger than O’Leary, it’s only by about twenty pounds. Ealy does this with one hand. O’Leary lacks raw power to win the physical part of many contests. As a result, he needs to rely on technique as a blocker. This is as bad as it gets, but the play highlights some consistent flaws he has while blocking. He’s taking “big” steps in that his feet come off the ground quite a bit (compare his footwork to Glenn and Richie Incognito). O’Leary also doesn’t set his feet to prepare for contact and is standing upright. Ideally, he’d be lower than Ealy and pushing back at the point of collision. Instead, he’s high and might as well be helping shove himself to the ground. Again, it’s not usually this bad, but you can’t ask for a better primer on his flaws in a single play.
Another play where O’Leary is slow off the snap, which helps Jordan Jenkins lay into him quickly. O’Leary is actually too far the other direction with most of his techniques on this play. He’s leaning too far forward, and a swim move from Jenkins likely sees O’Leary eating turf right off the snap (rather than at the end of the play). His feet are set, but in poor position. This combines with his (continued) inability to get low and results in being shoved way back. While the hand fighting is encouraging, O’Leary struggles getting the feet right and falls as Jenkins moves around him.
Let’s go back to O’Leary’s receiving skills. You’ll see this again, but take note of how well he maneuvers while backpedaling. Then, he very nimbly navigates his lane to free himself while accelerating. Right at the end, he makes a decisive cut to move past the first down marker with a hit coming. Raw numbers like his combine measurements wouldn’t suggest he’ll ever have elite speed, but O’Leary is dangerous with the ball. He has a good combination of speed, agility, and awareness that make him a consistent threat.
To be fair to O’Leary, he’s up against Lavonte David here, who has put together a heck of a career. O’Leary is better as a move blocker, where a full head of steam allows him to use his best traits. On the move, he’s also more natural in his balance, which helps considerably. Still though, O’Leary needs to stay on this block. Ideally, he’d move to David’s left shoulder, forcing him away from where the play is heading.
Let’s end on a high note. O’Leary is off to the races, moving quickly to his spot for this timing play. He does his part, but Tyrod Taylor delivers the ball high and behind his target. O’Leary barely loses any momentum as he twists and reaches to make the catch. Even more impressive, he’s backpedaling at a full tilt and turning upfield with the ball. If it weren’t for a well-timed dive at his ankles, O’Leary has a touchdown.
A lot of the plays above really hammer on O’Leary for his blocking flaws. The blocking focus is partially due to the existence of a Nick O’Leary reel put together by Cover 1 (definitely worth a click right here). In that, you can see O’Leary’s catch radius and ability to adjust to the ball are excellent. With more targets, O’Leary could be a breakout player in 2018.