Last week, the Buffalo Bills cut their starting tight end of four years, Scott Chandler, and then watched him sign with the New England Patriots two days later. The team is, for all we know, still trying to decide whether or not they're going to submit an offer sheet for transition-tagged Miami tight end Charles Clay; that has made for a rather irritating week's worth of non-updates and fan angst.
Some of that angst is justified, though: today, nearly seven full days into the new league year, the Bills' tight end depth chart consists of a former seventh-round pick (Chris Gragg), a former undrafted free agent quarterback-slash-athlete (MarQueis Gray), and a former local college basketball player (Chris Manhertz). You thought Buffalo's quarterback depth chart was bleak?
Yet for some reason - the selective recollection of the NFL offseason, probably - many conversations about the Bills' tight end position over the last few days have ended with some version of "... but I'd really like to see more of that Gray kid!"
Let's talk about that Gray kid, then.
The Bills added him to their active roster with six games remaining in the 2014 season, after their reserve tight ends sustained some injuries. He spent a week as a healthy scratch, then was thrust into the lineup for the final five games, moving ahead of Gragg in the pecking order because of his added utility as a special teams player. In those five games, Gray played a total of 121 snaps on offense, which was just over one-third of total offensive snaps in that time frame. He was used predominantly as a flex end, moving around the alignment and taking snaps in-line, as a blocking fullback, and even split out wide.
Many fans will remember that in his first game active with the Bills, in a 26-10 home win over the Cleveland Browns, Gray made two big plays on offense, including a critical third-down conversion in the second half. He ended that game with 71 receiving yards on just two receptions, and the interest of a huge number of Bills fans was officially piqued. (Those two receptions are analyzed in the first five stills in the above gallery; perhaps your opinion on Gray will normalize a bit after reviewing those.) In all, Gray caught eight passes for 118 yards last season.
At 6'3" and just over 240 pounds, Gray is a bit small for a tight end, but he's also a quality athlete: he has straight-line speed in the mid-4.6 to mid-4.7 range, and that is his greatest asset as a player. He has enough length and speed to carry the seam, and from what we can see thus far, he also has solid hands. Those are pluses.
His versatility is also an asset, and something that would appeal greatly to an offensive coordinator like Greg Roman. Part of the reason that the Bills like Clay so much is because he's a versatile athlete, capable as a runner or a blocker, and able to function in a number of different roles. Gray is no Clay, not by a long shot, but he does at least offer the ability to move around the formation.
As a football player, Gray is highly unpolished. He rounds off his routes and does not often create separation, which leads to low after-catch yardage as well (save, of course, for when he's wide open thanks to great play calls). More importantly, especially on a Rex Ryan team, he leaves a lot to be desired as a blocker. Much of the above photo gallery is dedicated to breaking down that aspect of his game, as it will be so critical to his success in the Bills' new offense.
Gray is hit-or-miss as a lead blocker out of the backfield. When he takes a good angle and can get through the hole, he's willing and able to deliver fairly big blows, and open up rushing lanes. But he'll often get lost in the wash, or whiff on second-level defenders. Add in the free agent signing of fullback Jerome Felton, and it's hard to envision Gray - or any versatile tight end, really - seeing a ton of reps out of the backfield, anyway.
While working on the line, Gray was asked to either seal off edge defenders, or move up to the second level. His whiffs on linebackers were more prevalent when working from this area of the field, and he also routinely lost ground to elite edge players like Von Miller and Clay Matthews. Most distressingly, Gray really struggles to sustain blocks; far too often, he'd engage with a player, only to be handily tossed to the side a split second later. But then, difficulties blocking pro defenders should not be altogether unexpected for a guy who played quarterback and wide receiver in college.
Athletically, there's a lot to like about Gray, but perhaps not quite as much as his 71 receiving yards against Cleveland might lead you to believe. He is a good athlete, but not a very explosive one. Athleticism does not always equal upside, either; Gray's a worthwhile project to have on hand, especially with only two pro seasons under his belt, but there are enough major holes in his game (i.e. route-running and blocking) to worry about his long-term projection as anything more than a versatile, useful deep reserve with special teams ability. He isn't a guy that has earned more playing time in any significant way.
What are your impressions of Gray? Are they still in selective recollection territory, or are you genuinely excited about what he brings to the table?