Mercifully, #ClayWatch reached its conclusion this week with the announcement that Charles Clay is the newest tight end for the Buffalo Bills. Clay's signing shores up a position that was already a point of concern for Bills fans, even before the team let the top two players on the depth chart last season move on to new teams. With this $38 million investment, it seems the Bills might finally be assigning the position the value that the rest of the league has over the last several seasons.
Tight end has never been a strong position for the Bills throughout their history. While some decent players have come to Buffalo, there aren't any names that are well-known to fans who aren't up on their Bills history. Here's a look at how the team has utilized the tight end position over the years.
Lou Saban was very fond of the tight end in the traditional receiver-slash-blocker role, and was one of the first coaches to employ a double-tight end set in professional football. This was the peak era for the Bills at tight end: while the team has never had a player suit up at that position in the NFL's version of the Pro Bowl, three Bills tight ends were selected as AFL All-Stars: Ernie Warlick (four times), Paul Costa (twice), and Charley Ferguson (once) all helped pave the way for Cookie Gilchrist and Wray Carlton while leading the Bills to two AFL Championships. That includes the 1965 season, when all three players were selected as All-Stars.
As the Bills moved into the NFL, they used the tight end position as more of a sixth offensive lineman than as a legitimate receiving target. The tight end with the most games played during the decade was Paul Seymour, an offensive tackle at Michigan who caught 62 passes for 818 yards and three touchdowns in five NFL seasons. (As a point of reference, Clay caught 69 passes for 759 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013 alone). Not coincidentally, O.J. Simpson led the NFL in rushing three times during Seymour's run with the team (and finished third another year).
As the Bills' offense moved toward a more balanced attack, the tight ends became more involved in the passing game. Mark Brammer was a fairly consistent safety valve for Joe Ferguson in the early part of the decade, averaging 27 catches per season from 1980-83. Then, the team went so far as to spend their first pick (two picks before selecting Jim Kelly) on Notre Dame's Tony Hunter, a converted receiver-running back who led the Irish in either receptions or receiving yards in each of his four collegiate seasons. Hunter was a good player, but injuries forced him out of the NFL after only two seasons. At that point, the Bills turned to Seattle castoff Pete Metzelaars, who is likely the most well-known tight end in Bills history. Metzelaars remained in Buffalo through 1994, and caught 302 passes for 2,921 yards and 25 touchdowns in the red, white, and blue.
With Metzelaars already in tow, the Bills added a second tight end to the mix in 1990 by converting wide receiver Keith McKeller. His balanced skill set allowed the Bills' no-huddle offense to run smoothly and switch between runs and passes without changing the personnel on the field, which is why the K-Gun offense was named after him (and not, as is commonly believed, Kelly). Both players were key to the early-'90s success of the Bills, seeing ample playing time and receiving opportunities. Metzelaars even led the team with 68 receptions in 1993. After both players left, Lonnie Johnson served as a quality receiver (40-plus receptions in three seasons) and as a bridge to Jay Riemersma, a good dual-threat tight end who remained the primary tight end on the roster until 2002.
2000 and beyond
Riemersma was a skilled receiver, but was overshadowed as a check-down option and never broke through the way that Metzelaars did. The remainder of the decade saw a rotating cast of ancillary players come and go, most notably free-agent pickups Mark Campbell and Robert Royal. At the end of the decade, there was a definite void in the depth chart, one that ended up being filled by a large presence in Scott Chandler. He became the Bills' primary tight end in 2011, a season where he tied Metzelaars' team record with six touchdown receptions. He would match that mark in 2012, and in 2013 he set the new single-season yardage standard at the position (655).
Chandler was one of the better tight ends in Bills history, but that speaks more to the play the team has seen at the position than the quality of Chandler's play. Clay has the potential to be the best receiving tight end the Bills have ever had, and has the blocking skills to set him aside from the other pseudo-wide receivers that have come to dominate the position in recent years. Here's to hoping he joins that group... or at least validates his massive contract.