In an attempt to add weapons for second-year quarterback Josh Allen, the Buffalo Bills overhauled their tight end position entirely in 2019. Buffalo released Charles Clay, who had signed a big contract prior to the 2015 season. They drafted two players and signed two more, as not one person who played tight end for Buffalo in 2018 did so in 2019.
With the 2020 season a big one in Allen’s development, more production will be expected out of the skill-position players. As a result, the team will absolutely be searching for upgrades all over the roster. At tight end, the team could go in any number of different directions with regard to divvying snaps next year.
In our latest look at the state of the Bills’ roster, we profile the tight ends—a group with quite a bit of intrigue. Between contract decisions and player development, this group truly has it all!
Contract status for 2020: Signed; second year of three-year deal ($6,412,500 cap hit; $1.6 million dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 27 (28 on 10/15/2020)
Playing time: 11 games (3 starts), 244 offensive snaps (22.8%), 71 ST snaps (17.2%)
Key statistics: 6 catches (14 targets), 71 yards, 1 TD
Signing Kroft came with some big-time risk, and that risk was realized almost immediately for Buffalo. After missing much of the 2018 season with a broken bone in his foot, Kroft had the exact same injury occur on his first practice of OTAs with Buffalo. Then, when the big veteran was set to return from the injury in September, he injured his ankle, delaying his Bills debut even more. Kroft finally played in his first game on October 20 against the Miami Dolphins. He caught his first pass a week later against the Philadelphia Eagles, and he caught his lone touchdown of the season on Sunday Night Football to put the Bills ahead for good against the Pittsburgh Steelers. To call his first season in Buffalo disappointing would be an understatement, and thanks to a combination of his injury history, lack of production, teammates’ development, and a contract that allows for the Bills to release him at minimal penalty, it’s hard to imagine Buffalo keeping him around in 2020.
Contract status for 2020: Signed; second year of three-year deal ($3.25 million cap hit; $1 million dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 32 (33 on 11/21/2020)
Playing time: 16 games (5 starts), 319 offensive snaps (29.8%), 71 ST snaps (17.2%)
Key statistics: 4 catches (5 targets), 31 yards, 1 TD
The veteran blocking specialist returned to Buffalo for his second tour of duty, and he was a familiar face on the Bills’ heavy packages all year. The frequency with which offensive coordinator Brian Daboll called for those packages dwindled as the year progressed, however, leaving Smith an underutilized player who struggled to keep out of Skarekrow’s penalty harm articles. Smith had eight accepted penalties against him this year, most in the league, for a total of 51 yards. With just a $1 million dead cap charge if he’s released, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if the Bills moved on from Smith this spring.
Contract status for 2020: Signed; second year of rookie contract ($849,045 cap hit; $616,635 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 23 (24 on 11/14/2020)
Playing time: 15 games (11 starts), 646 offensive snaps (60.4%), 76 ST snaps (18.4%)
Key statistics: 28 catches (50 targets), 388 yards, 2 TD
One of two rookies Buffalo selected in the third round to bolster the offense, Knox showed flashes of immense potential in his first year in the NFL. His athleticism is ridiculous, as is his stiff arm, which he used so effectively that he earned the nickname “Rambo.” He earned the starting gig after Kroft was injured, and he performed so well that he remained the starter even after the veteran returned from injury. Knox scored two more touchdowns this season than he did in his entire collegiate career, as he was overshadowed at Ole Miss by other NFL-worthy receivers like A.J. Brown and DK Metcalf. While he had issues with drops (Knox led all NFL tight ends with six this year), he is a potential breakout stud for the 2020 season.
Contract status for 2020: Signed; second year of rookie contract ($609,046 cap hit; $72,138 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 24 (25 on 7/1/2020)
Playing time: 6 games (1 start), 129 offensive snaps (12.1%), 5 ST snaps (1.2%)
Key statistics: 8 catches (13 targets), 114 yards
A seventh-round draft choice out of Boston College, Sweeney had an impressive preseason and, thanks to the injury to Kroft, he was on the active roster for the first six games of the season. He was inconsistent, which isn’t a surprise given his draft status; however, he showed up well enough that the team should give him the chance to make the roster, even if his role as the inactive-on-game-day-player is the same next year.
Contract status for 2020: Signed reserve/future deal on 1/7/2020 (Two-year deal; 2020 cap hit $514,000 with $8,000 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 23 (24 on 3/24/2020)
Playing time: N/A
Key statistics: N/A
A Lee Smith clone, Becker is a big-bodied blocking specialist who did little to distinguish himself during training camp and the preseason. He was on Buffalo’s practice squad all year—something that could very well happen again next season, as well.
Contract status for 2020: Exclusive-Rights Free Agent; can be signed at league minimum for his service time (2 years)
Age: 25 (26 on 2/28/2020)
Playing time: N/A
Key statistics: N/A
Croom is the proverbial ace in the hole here, as the Bills were able to stash the wide receiver-turned tight end on injured reserve thanks to a hamstring injury suffered during the first week of OTAs. A stellar athlete, Croom emerged as a good target during the 2018 season, hauling in 22 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown. He gives the Bills a solid athletic option who could help stretch the middle of the field along with Knox next season.
Buffalo has so many ways they could go here. They could leave the group as-is through training camp and the preseason, selecting the best three or four players to make the final roster come September. They could release Kroft and/or Smith, freeing up $7 million in cap space to make a run at players at other positions of need. They could cut those two veterans and then choose to pursue another free agent, like Austin Hooper, to top the depth chart, as well.
The team could also choose to draft another player to add to their young core of Knox, Sweeney, and Croom, perhaps going the New England Patriots route and investing in hyper-athletic tight ends like Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. They could do some combination of the above, and they could also zig where I’m thinking they’ll zag by doing something completely different.
If it were me, I’d release Kroft and Smith. I’d forgo the chance to pay big dollars in the free-agent market at tight end, choosing instead to invest in either a wide receiver or a defensive end (and perhaps even a corner). Then, if a phenomenal player like Cole Kmet fell in the draft, I’d consider adding another playmaker at the position through that route. This positional group is one of the most flexible on the entire roster, so the only thing that’s a guarantee is that some form of change is coming.