In the early part of the offseason, many speculated that the Buffalo Bills would undergo little change at the tight end position. With Charles Clay firmly entrenched as the starter, many fans and pundits assumed that Nick O’Leary would slot in as the backup, just as he did last season, with Logan Thomas or Khari Lee (or both) rounding out the unit.
However, as training camp has progressed, one thing has become abundantly clear: reports of the competition’s end were greatly exaggerated. Jason Croom, who joined the Bills as an undrafted free agent prior to the 2017 season, has emerged as a darkhorse candidate not only to make the 53-man roster, but to play a significant role with the club.
The 6’5” tight end was a wide receiver at the University of Tennessee, and at 246 pounds, he is built similarly to Bills’ receiver Kelvin Benjamin. Croom switched positions going into his senior year of college, and his college statistics overall (60 receptions, 816 yards, and 6 touchdowns over 3 seasons) are not impressive. However, he has clearly shown himself to be a useful weapon to new Buffalo offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, as he has risen up the depth chart all throughout training camp.
Croom began camp working almost exclusively with the backups, and he is currently listed as the Bills’ fourth-team tight end on the depth chart found on their official website. However, over the last few days of practice, Croom has worked in with the starting unit, even with Charles Clay practicing. When Buffalo’s veteran tight end had a rest day on Tuesday night, it was Croom who replaced him with the starters.
Who appears to have fallen as a result? Nick O’Leary, everyone’s favorite bare-handed pass-catching grandson of a famous golfer, seems to have been demoted to the third team as of late. Even Khari Lee has seen some run with the first team, yet O’Leary, who replaced Clay in the lineup last season when he tore his meniscus, has not taken many first-team reps in practice, if at all.
Croom is a better all-around athlete than O’Leary, providing more speed and natural receiving ability than the latter. If O’Leary were a lock-down blocker, he may be able to stake his claim to the second tight end role, but he has struggled to consistently win at the line of scrimmage. With Daboll emphasizing tight ends who can stretch the field as receivers both horizontally and vertically, Croom may just be a better fit in the scheme.
If the Bills do choose to keep four tight ends, it appears that Croom will be one of them. If they choose to keep only three, then what at first appeared to be a choice between Thomas and Croom may come down to Thomas and O’Leary instead.
Either way, what was once thought to be a settled positional group has become one to watch thanks to Croom’s strong camp.