Heading into last season, the Buffalo Bills expected to bring along their two rookie tight ends slowly. With a depth chart topped by two veterans, that assumption made sense at the time. However, thanks to an injury, the rookies were thrust into the spotlight early, with one earning the top spot for the duration of the season.
Heading into the 2020 season, Buffalo boasts essentially the same depth chart as it did heading into the 2019 season. But this time, the top dog in the pecking order is that young player from last year. Where does that leave the veteran tight ends on the roster?
In today’s edition of “91 players in 91 days,” we profile the elder statesman of the tight end group—a player on his second go-round with the Bills.
Name: Lee Smith
Height/Weight: 6’6”, 265 lbs.
Age: 32 (33 on 11/21/2020)
Experience/Draft: 10; selected in the fifth round (No. 159 overall) by the New England Patriots in the 2011 NFL Draft
Acquired: Signed with Buffalo on 5/13/2019
Financial situation (per Spotrac): Smith enters the second year of the three-year contract he signed in May 2019, a pact worth a total of $9 million. If Smith makes the final roster this year, he is set to count $3.25 million against the salary cap. Buffalo would be on the hook for a dead-cap charge of $1.5 million if he is released prior to the first week of the 2020 NFL season.
2019 Recap: If you want to judge Lee Smith based on his receiving numbers, you aren’t looking at the thing he’s asked to do most often, which is to serve as an extra blocker. In 16 games, Smith only saw five targets, and he caught four of them for a total of 31 yards and a touchdown. Smith was whistled for a career-high nine penalties in 2020, a total that represents one-fourth of his career penalty number (36). Five of those nine penalties were false starts. Overall, Smith appeared on 319 offensive snaps, or 29.8% of Buffalo’s offensive total for the season.
Positional outlook: Smith finds himself battling the same group of players he teamed with last year for roster space. The Bills’ depth chart includes Tyler Kroft, Dawson Knox, Tommy Sweeney, Jason Croom, and Nate Becker along with Smith.
2020 Offseason: Nothing new to report.
2020 Season outlook: Smith is the perfect 20th century backup tight end. He’s essentially an extra offensive lineman who is always an eligible receiver. In a league that continues to expand more towards exploiting match-ups in the passing game, however, Smith’s limitations as a receiver are glaring. The coaching staff seems to value his ability as a blocker far more than I do, but as the season progressed and Tyler Kroft regained his health, Smith’s snaps dwindled. Except for Buffalo’s Week 15 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he played 48% of the team’s snaps, Smith didn’t play more than 23% of the offensive snaps from Week 10 onward. I won’t be surprised if Smith is released, and I won’t be surprised if he makes the team, either. If it were me, Smith would be on the outside looking in for 2020, as I think Buffalo should go with a younger, more athletic group consisting of Knox, Kroft, Croom, and Sweeney. Kroft and Croom have not shown the ability to stay healthy consistently, however, so keeping Smith through training camp and the preseason as insurance at the very least is a wise move.