The Buffalo Bills hailed Derek Fine and Shawn Nelson as potential impact players when selecting the tight ends in each of the last two drafts.
It's time to find out if the Bills were right.
Derek Schouman's season-ending knee injury means Fine, a second-year pro, and Nelson, a rookie, will have more prominent roles on offense beginning with Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints.
"It was unfortunate with Schouman because he was off to a good year," Bills offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said. "Now we need Fine to do the things we expect of him and Shawn is going to have to step up and contribute earlier than we expected."
Fine, a fourth-round pick last year, was inactive the first six games as a rookie, his absence due in large part to surgery on an injured thumb. But he made quite an impression in his professional debut, scoring a touchdown on his first NFL catch. He finished the season with 10 catches for 94 yards.
Van Pelt said Fine would have started in the opener at New England two weeks ago if not for an ailing hamstring. Fortunately for the Bills, Fine is available now that they need him the most.
"It's kind of bittersweet to lose Schou like that and then to get this opportunity," Fine said. "I think we all have a pretty good connection with Schou on the field. He's one of those guys who makes everyone around him play better. That being said, I've just got to step up. I'm excited about the opportunity to play. It's kind of part of the deal. You never know when your number is going to get called."
Like Fine, Nelson was a fourth-round draft pick expected to make an immediate contribution. He has three catches for 26 yards in two games, but those numbers could increase significantly.
Nelson sprained his right shoulder last Sunday, but is expected to play against the Saints.
"I'm looking forward to getting on the field more and do what I can to help the team," he said. "We'll miss Derek, but in this league when one guy goes down the next guy has to step in. That's what they are asking me to do, and I'm ready for the challenge."
The Bills had a high comfort level with Schouman, whose all-around skills allowed Van Pelt to use him in different ways. In addition to blocking, Schouman was becoming a major factor in the passing game. He had nine catches in two games, including career highs of six for 62 yards in last Sunday's win over Tampa Bay. Van Pelt said the offensive approach will remain the same.
"I don't think you would ask Derek Fine to split out in the slot," Van Pelt said. "That's an area where Shawn can be good for us. So you play to their strengths. I don't think we change philosophy with what we ask them to do. We just put them in situations where they can be successful and let them play."
Fine gives the Bills a bigger and more physical body at tight end than Schouman or Nelson offers. A 6-foot-3, 250-pounder, Fine should be an asset in the running game because he is a tenacious run blocker who plays with good strength, leverage and technique at the point of attack.
He's also an underrated receiver. He doesn't have the same burst to separate from defenders like Schouman or the speed and raw athleticism that Nelson possesses.
But Fine has very reliable hands, runs good routes and has shown the ability to make himself an available target by finding soft spots in coverage.
"I take a lot of pride in my blocking," Fine said. "Last year, [linebackers] coach [Charlie] Coiner told me to get on the field I'd have to be a better blocker, so that's what I worked on.
"But I'm also excited to be a part of the passing game. With Lee Evans and Terrell Owens outside, there is going to be a lot of opportunities to catch balls underneath. When teams are doubling our outside guys down the field, our job is to find those open areas. That something Schou was really good at, and that's something we have to be able to do so [quarterback] Trent [Edwards] has somewhere to go with the ball."
Nelson's receiving ability is a big reason the Bills felt fortunate he was still on the board in the middle of the fourth round. They think the 6-5, 240-pounder will ultimately become a consistent downfield threat who can stretch the deep middle of the field.
Although Nelson has split out wide or in the slot most of the time, the Bills believe he has the strength and toughness to be a good blocker on the line of scrimmage.
"I've been splitting out mostly and now they are introducing the 'Y' position [lines up next to the tackle] to me," Nelson said. "Whether it's blocking or catching passes, I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get on the field and contribute."
The Bills were already young at tight end even when Schouman was healthy. With Fine, Nelson and practice squad call-up Jonathan Stupar, they are even younger now.
But Van Pelt feels good about the tight ends' skill level overcoming their lack of experience.
"I like this group of guys," he said. "Having Schou makes us better, but we still have a lot of ability at the position, and it's our job to maximize what they can do."