End-of-year press conferences have a tendency to elicit the most candid of answers from coaches and general managers across the NFL, and general manager Brandon Beane’s most recent meeting with the media proved to be no exception. When discussing the tight end position, Beane said that he thought it was “up and down.”
“It was never where the opposing defense was like, ‘Man, we’ve got to stop their tight ends from going off,” Beane remarked. “So we’ll look to that group. At the end of the day we’d love to have a guy like what we just faced (Kelce), but they don’t come very often. We’ve got some guys here we want to continue to develop and see what happens. Obviously if there’s ways to add competition, whether that’s in free agency or the draft, we would do that, as well.”
I interpret that as someone who thinks an addition to the tight end room—one who inspires game-planning efforts by opposing defenses on a weekly basis—would benefit the Bills in 2021. Incumbent starter Dawson Knox was a raw converted quarterback with extremely minimal touches coming out of college and shouldn't be dismissed as a player who can take the next step towards being an impact tight end in the league. However, with the possible retirement of Lee Smith, the expiring contract of Tyler Kroft, and the unclear medical status of Tommy Sweeney, multiple players may need to be added this spring. What can the Bills do to achieve the impact they’ve been searching for from their tight end group? I have some thoughts...
1. Assume a Lee Smith retirement, and if not—release him
Lee Smith has managed to build a career spanning a decade in the NFL and has earned over $21 million dollars as a blocking tight end. That should speak to how well he’s filled that niche role over the years. A release or retirement gives the Bills $2.25 million in cap space while incurring no dead cap, and with space at a premium, the Bills’ first step toward obtaining better production out of their TE group is clearing opportunities in 12 and 13 personnel for new blood.
2. Sign Dan Arnold away from the Arizona Cardinals
While Gerald Everett and Jonnu Smith are garnering the most headlines for Bills Mafia as the “tier 2” unrestricted free-agent tight ends behind Hunter Henry, might I interest you in a player below that tier? While teams are offering up $7-9 million average annual value contracts to Smith and Everett, Arnold is likely to come markedly cheaper with similar levels of 2020 production. Although Arnold comes in lighter than you’d like for an in-line tight end (weighing in the 220s), he actually played close to the same percentage of snaps in-line as Dawson Knox did this past season. He gives the Bills two legitimate receiving options in 12 personnel—which was not the case last year when that grouping was populated by Knox and Lee Smith—and might force the defense into more precarious responses with groupings.
3. Draft Tommy Tremble
In case you were concerned about losing blocking efficacy through the loss of Lee Smith, allow me to introduce you to who I think is the best blocker in the 2021 tight end class. Tremble bestows upon his opponents his own surname as he consistently initiates contact, and lest you think he’s only a glorified offensive lineman, Tremble ran a 4.63 40-yard dash coming out of high school. He was overshadowed in 2019 by now-Chicago Bears tight end Cole Kmet and in 2020, freshman star Michael Mayer commanded targets that led to a team lead in catches. But the draft is about traits, not production, and Tremble can contribute as a blocker right now while still offering upside as an athletic receiver. I would anticipate Tremble to be an early day-three pick.