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Buffalo Bills training camp roster preview: Tight ends

The Bills didn’t do a whole lot here, and with every passing day it’s unlikely they will.

NFL: AFC Championship Game-Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

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 tight ends 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 roster heading into training camp, we profile the tight end group, a contingent that has some promise but, ultimately, lacks a dynamic playmaker. For now.

Dawson Knox

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)
2020 Playing time: 12 games (7 starts), 427 offensive snaps (39.25 percent), 34 ST snaps (7.57 percent)
Key 2020 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. This 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. Buffalo could begin looking elsewhere very soon.

Reggie Gilliam

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)
2020 Playing time: 14 games, 168 ST snaps (37.42 percent), 77 offensive snaps (7.08 percent)
Key 2020 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 this season. Ultimately, it’s likely he stays in that H-back role with goal line packages and sticks on the roster for special teams.

Tommy Sweeney

Contract status for 2021: Signed; third year of rookie contract ($874,046 cap hit; $48,092 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: Turned 26 on 7/1/2021
2020 Playing time: N/A
Key 2020 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. He’s back and healthy and while he’s on the bubble, he’s on the good side of the argument right now.

Nate Becker

Contract status for 2021: Signed reserve/future deal with Buffalo on 1/26/2021
Age: Turned 25 on 3/24/2021
2020 Playing time: One game, 30 offensive snaps (2.76 percent), four ST snaps (.89 percent)
Key 2020 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. He has a shot to unseat Sweeney as the last tight end on the roster.

Jacob Hollister

Contract status for 2021: Signed a one-year, $1.13 million contract this offseason with $137,500 guaranteed
Age: 27 (28 on 11/18/2021)
2020 Playing time: 16 games (5 starters) for Seattle Seahawks; 374 offensive snaps (35.12 percent) and 283 special teams snaps (62.75 percent)
Key 2020 statistics: 25 receptions, 209 yards, 3 TDs for Seattle

A core special teamer and a contributing tight end all in one package, Hollister brings the production the Bills need from the TE2 position (with upside for TE1) and a much better price tag than Tyler Kroft over the last two years. Right now he’s firmly entrenched as the second-string, but if Dawson Knox doesn’t take a step, Buffalo could give more snaps to Hollister as the season goes on. Hollister played his college ball with Josh Allen at Wyoming, adding another wrinkle.

Quintin Morris

Contract status for 2021: Signed a three-year UDFA deal this offseason; $664,000 cap hit with $37,000 dead cap if cut
Age: Turned 22 on 1/21/2021
2020 Playing time: Started five games for Bowling Green University
Key 2020 statistics: Led team with 20 catches, 248 receiving yards. First-team All-MAC.

The former wide receiver, Morris transitioned to tight end for his junior year at Bowling Green. He’s an athletic former basketball player who brings an intriguing skill set but is very raw. Definitely a practice squad candidate at a thin position for Buffalo.

Players who left this offseason

  • Lee Smith (Traded to Atlanta Falcons)
  • Tyler Kroft (Free agent signed with New York Jets)

This might be the thinnest position group on Buffalo’s roster as it stands right now. Hollister is a stabilizer and Knox has potential, but there are too many questions to feel solid. That’s why Bills fans have been clamoring for a Zach Ertz trade. The longer things goes without trading for the Philadelphia Eagles’ pass catcher, the less likely it’s going to happen. I (Matt) don’t think he’s a great fit for what they’re trying to do and I wouldn’t trade for him. If he hits the free-agent market, we could talk about a low-risk, low-cost, one-year deal. I’d still like to see them add a veteran tight end option right now heading into training camp as they are banking heavily on development from a multitude of young players on the current roster.