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2019 NFL Draft: Moving on from Buffalo Bills tight end Charles Clay

This is a good year to consider drafting a tight end.

Charles Clay may be one of the best tight ends to ever wear a Buffalo Bills uniform, but that’s not really saying much as the team has never had a strong history of tight ends outside of Pete Metzelaars. Still, Clay brought stability to the position for several years, and endured quarterback and scheme changes along the way. However, in the 2018 season, Clay’s production and effectiveness cratered. The eighth-year player caught only 21 passes for a career-low 184 yards. Releasing Clay during the 2019 offseason would net the team $4,500,000 in cap space, a move general manager Brandon Beane is likely to make. Fortunately, if the team does end up cutting ties with their tight end, the coming draft is stuffed to the proverbial gills with exciting tight ends. Below are just some of the names.

Tier I

T.J. Hockenson (Iowa)
Noah Fant (Iowa)
Irv Smith Jr. (Alabama)

All three players in this first tier could find themselves drafted in the first round. Hockenson is the most versatile prospect at the tight end position in the draft. He can block as well as former Hawkeye George Kittle (which is to say, very well) and is extremely sure-handed. Hockenson’s teammate Fant is more imposing as an athletic pass-catcher on the move, but doesn’t offer nearly as much as an in-line blocker. Irv Smith is like a young Charles Clay: on the smaller side, but an excellent route-runner and a strong blocker to boot.

Tier II

Kaden Smith (Stanford)
Josh Oliver (San Jose State)
Jace Sternberger (Texas A&M)
C.J. Conrad (Kentucky)

Smith is essentially a wide receiver in a tight end’s body. Don’t ask him to block, just ask him to run up the seam and use him to find the holes in zone coverage. Oliver toiled on a terrible team, but as the off-season moves along he could be a riser. He’s a high-ceiling developmental prospect with the frame and agility to threaten defenses deep. Sternberger is a linear athlete, but he can accelerate quickly and his long speed may be the best in the class. A rare blocker, Conrad doesn’t offer too much as a receiver, other than as a reliable, big target.

Tier III

Caleb Wilson (UCLA)
Zach Gentry (Michigan)
Isaac Nauta (Georgia)

Developmental or affordable players, this tier is for teams looking to foster some competition in their tight-end room. Wilson reminds this observer of former Clemson Tiger Jordan Leggett, big and lanky, but lethargic in his route running. If a team is willing to stash Gentry and develop him a bit, he could end up becoming a solid starter down the line. Nauta never quite lived up to his potential at Georgia, but he blocks like a bulldog and is an above-average, straight-line runner who is particularly difficult to bring down, as well.