In five of the Buffalo Bills’ 61 seasons as a professional franchise, the club has had a tight end catch 50 or more passes. Charles Clay did it twice, catching 51 passes in 2015 and 57 passes in 2016. He narrowly missed doing it thrice, catching 49 balls in 2017. (That fact was really just an excuse to use the word thrice in a sentence.) Jay Riemersma caught 53 passes in 2001, and Scott Chandler caught that same number in 2013. Pete Metzelaars led the 1994 Bills in receptions, setting a franchise record for tight ends by catching 68 passes.
Why focus on that number of receptions by a tight end? For starters, it illustrates that the Bills haven’t had many good ones in the history of their team. Also, in the context of the modern NFL, a tight end catching 50 passes isn’t too big a deal. Just this year alone, there were 14 tight ends who caught 50 passes. And while Rob Gronkowski was not one of those players, he did manage 45 catches while helping the Tampa Bay Buccaneers win the Super Bowl against the Kansas City Chiefs. Their tight end, Travis Kelce, had 105 receptions for 1,416 yards and 11 touchdowns.
A dynamic receiving weapon at tight end stresses a defense out in two ways: If they counter with a lighter package that might have better coverage players, that tight end is going to be much bigger and stronger than the man lined up across from him. That helps in the running game and in the passing game, as the larger man can use his size to gain position to make tough catches. If the defense counters with a base package, then chances are good that the tight end is covered by a linebacker—and unless your team has Devin White, that’s a problem.
In today’s look at the State of the Buffalo Bills roster, we profile the tight end group, a contingent that has some promise but, ultimately, lacks a dynamic playmaker.
Contract status for 2021: Signed; third year of rookie contract ($1,085,545 cap hit; $411,090 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 24 (25 on 11/14/2021)
Playing time: 12 games (7 starts), 427 offensive snaps (39.25 percent), 34 ST snaps (7.57 percent)
Key statistics: 44 targets, 24 receptions, 288 yards, three touchdowns
Knox struggled with consistency in his second season, though this was a bit different than the struggles he faced as a rookie in that regard. Knox struggled to hang on to the ball consistently as a rookie, and while he still showed some iffy hands this year, he was much better overall. Where Knox struggled in 2020 was with his health, as he missed time due to a foot injury and a COVID-19 diagnosis. Knox actually set a career high in receptions in Buffalo’s loss to the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game, catching six passes. Next year is a big one for Knox, as he’ll need to remove the “potential” part of his descriptors and start producing more consistently, both as a receiver and as a blocker.
Contract status for 2021: Signed; final year of three-year contract ($2.25 million cap hit; zero dead-cap charge if cut
Age: 33 (34 on 11/21/2021)
Playing time: Ten games (two starts), 142 offensive snaps (13.05 percent), 72 ST snaps (16.04 percent)
Key statistics: Six targets, four receptions, 35 yards, two touchdowns
The veteran began the season as a healthy scratch more often than not, though he became a mainstay on the active roster after Buffalo’s bye week. Smith didn’t do anything differently than what he’s done throughout his career—he was a solid blocker and a seldom-used receiver. Speculation is that he’ll retire but, even if he doesn’t, there’s a solid chance that Smith is a cap casualty this offseason, as Buffalo could save $2.25 million on the 2021 salary cap with zero dead-cap charge by releasing the veteran blocking specialist.
Contract status for 2021: Signed; second year of rookie contract ($786,666 cap hit; $13,334 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 23 (24 on 8/20/2021)
Playing time: 14 games, 168 ST snaps (37.42 percent), 77 offensive snaps (7.08 percent)
Key statistics: Two targets, two receptions, 16 yards, one touchdown, two tackles, one forced fumble
Gilliam was a mainstay on Buffalo’s special teams unit, and while he was unable to block any kicks after making a living doing that in college at Toledo, he did catch his first NFL touchdown pass as a rookie. Gilliam was seldom used on offense, but he has the chance to earn a greater role next season. However, I imagine the team will look to upgrade enough where “Sledge” will remain mostly a special teams player.
Contract status for 2021: Unrestricted free agent
Age: 28 (29 on 10/15/2021)
Playing time: Ten games (four starts), 298 offensive snaps (27.39 percent), 91 ST snaps (20.27 percent)
Key statistics: 16 targets, 12 receptions, 119 yards, three touchdowns
Kroft was active for much of the first half of the season, and he had his best game in Week 3 against the Los Angeles Rams. In that game, Kroft caught four passes for 24 yards and two touchdowns, including a diving grab that was the game winner. While his time with the Bills was marred by injuries and a stint on the COVID-19 list thanks to being a close contact, he didn’t necessarily play poorly. He just didn’t live up to the contract the Bills gave him two offseasons ago.
Contract status for 2021: Signed; third year of rookie contract ($874,046 cap hit; $48,092 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 25 (26 on 7/1/2021)
Playing time: N/A
Key statistics: N/A
Sweeney began the year on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list due to a foot injury, and right around the time he was due to return, he was diagnosed with myocarditis, a heart condition linked to COVID-19. Sweeney was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list prior to Buffalo’s Week 7 tilt against the New York Jets as a close contact of teammate Dawson Knox, who tested positive for the virus.
Contract status for 2021: Signed reserve/future deal with Buffalo on 1/26/2021
Age: 24 (25 on 3/24/2021)
Playing time: One game, 30 offensive snaps (2.76 percent), four ST snaps (.89 percent)
Key statistics: N/A
Becker is a blocking specialist in the Lee Smith mold, so it’s no surprise that he wasn’t targeted in his regular-season debut. That debut took place in Buffalo’s blowout victory over the Miami Dolphins in Week 17.
I would argue that this is the worst positional group on the Bills’ roster, as their most promising player (Knox) hasn’t shown much, and the player I’d say is the best all-around at the position (Kroft) is a free agent who didn’t fit the scheme offensive coordinator Brian Daboll wanted to run. The team obviously isn’t going to jettison Knox, and he’ll be in line for plenty of snaps next season. The question is how are they going to upgrade the position, as there are already plenty of mouths to feed in the passing game at wide receiver. However, a versatile tight end who is physical enough as an in-line blocker while also providing dangerous reps as a wide receiver would make an already excellent offense damn near impossible to stop. The Bills will not go into next season with a depth chart including just Knox, Sweeney, and Becker, but they probably won’t be able to afford a player like Hunter Henry in free agency, either. General manager Brandon Beane will need to be creative in giving quarterback Josh Allen another weapon—one who can also help Devin Singletary and Zack Moss find more space in the running game.