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Bills at TE: Wait for the Charles Clay payoff continues

This is the fourth of a series that examines where the Buffalo Bills stand at each position heading into training camp, which begins July 27. Today’s installment looks at tight end.

The search goes on.

It might not be as pronounced as the one for a franchise quarterback, but it is a significant hole nonetheless.

When are the Buffalo Bills ever going to get a difference-making tight end?

To find the last one the franchise had, you have to go back to the same 1990s era when they last had a franchise quarterback, Jim Kelly. Back then, Pete Metzelaars and Keith McKeller provided consistently strong tight end play.

It has been a series of swings and misses ever since.

In 2015, the Bills made a major investment at the position when they signed restricted free agent Charles Clay from the Miami Dolphins. They're still waiting for the payoff from a player who counts $9 million against their salary cap and is one of the top-paid tight ends in the NFL.

The Bills didn't address tight end in the draft, nor did they make any substantive moves in free agency to try to improve there.

They're simply going to try to get by with what they have, which offers little promise from the top to the bottom of the depth chart.

Here's the breakdown at tight end:

Returning: Charles Clay, Nick O'Leary and Logan Thomas.

Newcomers: Jason Croom, Keith Towbridge and Wes Saxton.

Better, worse or the same? Same.

That's the sad reality for a team that had one of the weaker passing games in the NFL last season.

Coach Sean McDermott acknowledged during the offseason he was concerned with Clay's chronic knee trouble, noting that it was something the team had to manage with the number of snaps he received in practice.

In 15 games last season, Clay caught 57 passes, six more than he had in 13 games in 2015. His 9.7 yards per catch were the lowest of his six NFL seasons.

Part of the problem, as it was in '15, was Tyrod Taylor's well-documented reluctance to throw to the middle of the field. But that didn't explain everything.

If Clay can stay healthy and Taylor can elevate his passing to a level he has yet to reach in the NFL and new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison can put together a scheme that maximizes production through the air, perhaps the Bills will get much more from the tight end position. But that's a lot of ifs.

In the meantime, the Bills appear stuck right where they've been at the spot for years: mediocrity.

O'Leary has made no impact since joining the team as a 2015 sixth-round draft pick from Florida State, and there is no reason to believe that's going to change.

Thomas, the other returnee at tight end, is ordinary, at best. Expecting undrafted free agents Croom and Towbridge, or street free agent Saxton to be anything special is probably expecting too much.

Next: Offensive line

More from Bills pre-camp series:

Bills at QB: Could pay cut and uncertain future negatively impact Taylor?

Bills at RB: LeSean McCoy still looks to be at the top of his game

Bills at WR: Lack of commitment to Sammy Watkins speaks volumes

Bills at TE: Wait for the Charles Clay payoff continues

Bills at OL: An area of strength now carrying its share of questions

Bills at DL: Higher accountability for Marcell Dareus, simpler scheme could lead to greater production

Bills at LB: Could new role and additions help Lorenzo Alexander have a strong encore to impressive '16 season?

Bills at DB: Hard to see immediate improvement in revamped secondary

Bills at ST: Stephen Hauschka figures to spark a rebound in the kicking game

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