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Camp preview: Buffalo Bills reinvent tight-end position from top to bottom

A high draft pick, a big free agent, and a reinvented tight-end corps move the Bills into 2019

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bills have seemingly been in search of a great tight end for the franchise’s entire history. The team’s all-time leader in receptions at the position, Pete Metzelaars, left the team in 1994, having accumulated 302 catches in his 156 games with the team. While other teams have begun to utilize tight ends who play more like wide receivers, the Bills have been unable to find players who fit the new-age mold for the position.

After jettisoning their leading tight end from the last several seasons, the team moves on without Charles Clay and one of his primary backups, Logan Thomas. They invested heavily in the position this offseason with a high draft pick, a big-money free agent, and several new additions to the group.

In our first installment of the training-camp preview, we look at the tight-end position, a group that is in an immense amount of flux heading into 2019.

Tyler Kroft

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed a three-year, $18.76 million contract this offseason ($6.3 million cap hit which will increase if released)
  • Age: 26 (27 on 10/15/19)
  • 2018 Playing time: 5 games (2 starts), 117 snaps (11.74% of offensive total), 49 ST snaps (10.84%) for Cincinnati Bengals
  • 2018 Key statistics: 6 targets, 4 receptions, 36 yards for Cincinnati Bengals

Kroft broke his foot last year, ending his season in Cincinnati. In 2019, he’s already broken the same foot during OTAs and is going to be out until at least the start of the season. It’s not a great start for the man picked to replace Clay in the Bills’ offense. He’s probably not the long-term answer—that’s the next guy on the list—but he was supposed to be the 2019 answer, and now that’s probably not going to happen.

Dawson Knox

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed; four years, $3.5 million rookie contract
  • Age: 22 (23 on 11/4/19)
  • 2018 playing time: 9 games for Ole Miss
  • Key 2018 statistics: 15 receptions, 284 yards for Ole Miss

The Bills traded up to select Knox in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft because they saw the position group falling off after a run on tight ends. His lack of production at Ole Miss shouldn’t scare you; the Rebels had two of the biggest names in college football at wide receiver. An athletic prospect, Knox is also a willing blocker and could develop into an every-down TE over time. With Kroft’s injury, that time could come sooner than expected.

Lee Smith

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed a three-year, $9 million contract this offseason with a $3.5 million cap hit in 2019 that goes up if he’s released
  • Age: 31 (32 on 11/21/19)
  • 2018 playing time: 16 games (4 starts), 283 snaps (27.16% of offensive total), 203 ST snaps (45.82%) for Oakland Raiders
  • Key 2018 statistics: 11 targets, 10 catches, 73 yards (7.3 YPC), 3 TDs for Oakland Raiders

Smith returns to the Bills from the Oakland Raiders with some eye-popping stats. A 91% catch rate is remarkable, as is a 30% touchdown rate. In short, the Raiders picked their spots to lull opponents to sleep and then unleashed Smith. Known primarily as a blocker, he’s mostly a veteran presence to help Buffalo’s run game and shore up special teams. His contract says he’s not going anywhere and with the Kroft injury, he’s even more valuable.

Jason Croom

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed; $570,000 cap hit (0 dead cap if cut)
  • Age: 24 (25 on 2/28/19)
  • 2018 Playing time: 15 games (3 starts), 387 snaps (36.54% of offensive total), 146 ST snaps (33.26%)
  • Key 2018 statistics: 35 targets, 22 catches, 259 yards (11.8 YPC), 1 TD, 2 fumbles

The second-year pro played in his first career NFL games during 2018, and he acquitted himself fairly well overall. Croom looked comfortable, though not overpowering, as a blocker, and he showed some good route-running ability and athleticism. As a former collegiate wide receiver at the University of Tennessee, Croom definitely has some mismatch potential moving forward, and he has tremendous value with Kroft on the shelf.

Tommy Sweeney

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed; four years, $2.6 million rookie deal
  • Age: Turned 24 on 7/1/2019
  • 2018 playing time: 11 games for Boston College
  • Key 2018 statistics: 32 receptions, 348 yards, 3 TDs for Boston College

A seventh-round draft pick, Sweeney is fairly average-sized TE with shorter arms and low-end athleticism. He is a willing blocker and capable in the passing game, but he shouldn’t be expected to light up the preseason.

Keith Towbridge

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed; Two years, $1,080 million ($495,000 in 2019)
  • 2018 playing time: N/A; Bills practice squad, AAF’s Atlanta Legends
  • Key 2018 statistics: N/A

After a disappointing 2018, Towbridge joined the Atlanta Legends of the AAF, where he caught 17 passes for 196 yards on 27 targets over eight games. After being signed by the Tennessee Titans and participating in their offseason program, he was released. Now that he’s been claimed by the Bills, he returns to Buffalo where his NFL career failed to launch.

Nate Becker

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed; one year, $495,000 deal
  • Age: Turned 23 on 3/24/2019
  • Playing time: 7 games for University of Miami (Ohio)
  • Key statistics: 13 catches, 154 yards, 1 TD for University of Miami (Ohio)

Signed by the Detroit Lions after going undrafted, Becker was released following the team’s rookie minicamp. He’s primarily known as a blocker.

Positional Outlook

A complete overhaul was enough to warrant a close eye on the position group heading into training camp but the injury to Kroft adds another layer of intrigue. Instead of three spots on the line with three new Bills from a year ago, the injury opens the door for a fourth player to sneak his way onto the back end of the roster to start the season.

Knox is clearly the future, and will get a crack at being the guy, but Smith and Croom will get heavy rotation during the preseason as their veteran knowledge will place them ahead of the more talented rookie—at least to start.

If one or more of the players can develop chemistry with second-year quarterback Josh Allen, even as the safety net, the position could improve greatly on last year, where Charles Clay, Jason Croom, and Logan Thomas were not very effective.

Two big free-agent signings, a draft-day trade up, a late draft pick, and several street free agents later and Buffalo’s tight-end corps has been revamped.