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Bills tight ends did not live up to hype

This is the fourth of a nine-part positional review of the Buffalo Bills’ 2015 season. Today’s installment looks at the tight ends.

By Vic Carucci

News Sports Reporter

The investment was staggering, but that’s what it figured to take for the Buffalo Bills to yank Charles Clay from a divisional rival.

After the Bills signed Clay to what would prove to be the fourth-richest contract among NFL tight ends, the Miami Dolphins forfeited the right granted by their transition tag to match the deal and retain him.

So what did the Bills get for the $38 million ($24.5 million of which is guaranteed) they agreed to pay Clay over five years?

The receiving numbers from his first season in Buffalo don’t exactly paint a picture of an overwhelming payoff.

Clay ranked second on the Bills behind wide receiver Sammy Watkins with 51 receptions for 528 yards and three touchdowns before missing the final three games with a back injury.

There were 10 tight ends who ranked among the NFL’s top 50 in receptions, and Clay wasn’t one of them. In fact, he had nine fewer catches than Pittsburgh’s Heath Miller, who was 10th among tight ends and 50th overall in the league.

It should be noted, however, that of the three tight ends with larger contracts than Clay’s, only New England’s Rob Gronkowski finished with more receptions (72 for 1,176 yards and 11 touchdowns in 15 games). The top man on that list, Seattle’s Jimmy Graham, played only 11 games before suffering a season-ending ruptured patellar tendon. The second-highest paid player at the position, Jacksonville’s Julius Thomas, had his season shortened to 12 games because of injuries.

Last month, Clay, who calls himself his “hardest critic,” described his first season with the Bills as “OK.”

“Obviously, I’ve had plays I wish I could have back,” he said. “It’s never perfect throughout a season, but I feel like I’ve done some things well.”

One of those things is blocking, and Clay did make a significant contribution to helping to create the room that went a long way toward allowing the Bills to lead the NFL in rushing. There are blocking plays that Clay would like to “have back” as well, but on the whole he feels he made strides with his technique from what offensive coordinator Greg Roman taught him.

The breakdown follows:

Signed: Blake Annen, Charles Clay, Chris Gragg, Jacob Maxwell, Nick O’Leary.

Pending free agents: Manasseh Garner, MarQueis Gray.

What went right: Acquiring Clay.

Sure, he cost the Bills a fortune and it could easily be argued that they paid too much for him. Yet they did get the complete tight end Roman desperately wanted for his offensive scheme.

True, Clay only caught four more passes than the team’s previous No. 1 tight end, Scott Chandler, had in 2014. But there is no comparing the two. Clay runs better pass routes, does a better job of catching the ball, and is a far superior blocker.

That was why the Bills had no qualms with allowing Chandler to enter free agency, from where he subsequently signed with New England to back up Gronkowski.

What went wrong: The position wasn’t nearly as productive as it should have been in an offense that emphasizes it.

Clay probably should have caught more passes, but most of that wasn’t his fault. When you take a closer look at game tape, you see many instances where Clay is open and/or well positioned to beat man-to-man coverage, but quarterback Tyrod Taylor either isn’t able to find him or chooses to throw elsewhere without looking in Clay’s direction.

Some of that is a function of Taylor’s inexperience as a first-year NFL starter. Some of it is because, at 6-foot-1, he isn’t always able to get the clearest view over his blockers from the middle of the pocket and needs to move to areas where those throwing lanes are available. Finding his tight end will be a point of emphasis with Taylor, who this year is expected to get the lion’s share of practice repetitions as the clear-cut starter, through the offseason and training camp.

After Clay, none of the Bills’ other tight ends made any real noteworthy contributions as receivers or blockers.

Perhaps the two best ways to sum up how poor the team’s depth was at the position are: Matt Mulligan, who was a terrible receiver and mainly a liability as a blocker (he routinely was called for holding), being on the roster for the first 12 games; Gragg being unaware he had run a pass route out of bounds before turning around to make a catch in the Oct. 25 loss against Jacksonville at London.

Where they go from here: The Bills urgently need to find some tight end depth.

O’Leary, one of the Bills’ sixth-round draft picks last year, never came remotely close to replicating the big-play ability as a receiver he showed at Florida State. He struggled throughout training camp and the preseason before being waived and then re-signed to the practice squad. At 6-3 and 252 pounds, he simply doesn’t have the size or power to effectively compete at a high level in the NFL.

The Bills activated O’Leary early last month after waiving Mulligan. Beyond a 37-yard catch against Washington, O’Leary did nothing memorable.

Next: Offensive line.