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Upon further review: Examining the future at tight end after Charles Clay

If there was any doubt about Charles Clay’s future with the Buffalo Bills, it was eliminated Sunday.

By making their starting tight end a healthy inactive against the New England Patriots, the Bills sent a clear message that Clay isn’t long for Buffalo.

“Just coach's decision,” coach Sean McDermott said. “Production and looking at young guys. When you have opportunities, you've got to make plays and then looking at some young guys, too, to see if they, when given the opportunity, make plays."

Clay was diplomatic in the locker room after the Bills’ locker room after the loss, saying, “I don’t want to get into any of that,” when asked about his reaction to being inactive. “I mean, you can talk to somebody else, but I don't want to touch that.”

That the Bills appear ready to move on from Clay doesn’t come as a shock. His production has drastically declined this season, with just 21 catches for 184 yards and no touchdowns. It has really bottomed out in the last month, with just two catches for 15 yards in the four games prior to Sunday. That came after Clay missed two games because of a hamstring injury, which means his last game with more than one catch came in October.

“Anything that's out of my control, I can't really focus on,” he said Sunday when asked what he thought being inactive meant for his future with the team. “I'm going to continue to work like I have been and I'll continue to do that, just keep my head down and continue working and see what happens.”

Clay has one season left on a five-year contract signed by former General Manager Doug Whaley. It carries a $9 million salary-cap hit. The Bills can save $4.5 million of that if Clay is cut after the year.

“Like I said, I'm going to control what I can,” he said. “It’s more disappointing to come down here and not get a win. I'm just going to come out and try to help my team as much as I possibly can in whatever role it is.”

On Sunday, that meant being a sounding board for Jason Croom, who started in Clay’s place.

“We all prepare the same way,” Croom said. “Every time I was coming off, I was just trying to talk to him, tell me what he's seeing. Just give me a little motivation. It is what it is. If my number is called we go out there. We're all interchangeable.”

Moving on from Clay creates an opening in the starting lineup. Determining whether Croom can fill that in 2019 is a big question for the coaching staff. The Bills have a combined 493 receiving yards from four tight ends this season – Croom with 227, Clay with 184, Logan Thomas with 77 and Khari Lee with 5. There are 17 tight ends in the NFL with as many or more yards than the Bills’ group.

“It's just us needing to execute,” said Croom, who spent last season on the practice squad. “We know we were going against a good team, and we've got to put our best stuff out there. … We didn't do it today.”

NFL TIGHT END LEADERS
Player, Team Rec. Yards TD
Travis Kelce, Chiefs 98 1,274 10
George Kittle, 49ers 79 1,228 4
Zach Ertz, Eagles 113 1,148 8
Jared Cook, Raiders 63 848 6
Eric Ebron, Colts 62 690 12
Rob Gronkowski, Patriots 45 658 3
Jimmy Graham,  Packers 52 615 4
Kyle Rudolph, Vikings 60 615 4
Austin Hooper, Falcons 66 593 4
David Njoku, Browns 53 577 4
Vance McDonald, Steelers 47 471 4
O.J. Howard, Bucs 34 565 5
Jordan Reed, Redskins 54 558 2
Trey Burton, Bears 49 536 6
Mark Andrews, Ravens 30 498 3
Evan Engram, Giants 40 496 2
Chris Herndon, Jets 38 494 4
BILLS 55 493 1

Croom finished with four catches for 55 yards, but lost a critical fumble in the third quarter. Fighting for extra yardage inside the Patriots’ 10-yard line, Croom had the ball knocked away from him by Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty. It was recovered by New England’s Malcom Brown.

“That's not what I want to be known for,” Croom said. “That one hit me pretty hard. That's when I was on the sideline actually talking to Charles, he's like ‘Stay in it, play hard.’ Just trying to make a play, but you can't make a play if you ain't got the ball.”

“We get a score there, with a touchdown, then we are within a touchdown or so,” McDermott said. “Those are tough, because I love the effort, but you also have to be smart. Keep it high and tight, keep two hands on the ball when you feel like the play is ending for the most part.”

It’s the second fumble Croom has lost in opposition territory this year – his lost fumble against the Bears in Week 9 was returned for a touchdown.

“I want to take care of the ball. I want to be trusted with it,” he said. “Just understanding when to get down.”

Draft watch

The Bills are seventh in the draft order with a 5-10 record. They are behind Arizona, Oakland, San Francisco, the New York Jets, Detroit and Tampa Bay. The Lions and Buccaneers have the same 5-10 record, but are ahead of the Bills based on strength of schedule.

Stat of the game: 273

That’s the number of yards gained by the Patriots on the ground Sunday, the highest total allowed by the Bills this season and the most since New Orleans went for 298 yards in Week 10 of the 2017 season. “Give credit where credit is due. They had a good plan coming out. I thought we made some adjustments, believe it or not, during the early part of the game. You know, but at the end of the day, you can’t allow a team to run against you like that,” McDermott said.

Game ball: Lorenzo Alexander

The 35-year-old continues to be one of, if not the, best defensive players on the Buffalo roster. He finished with a whopping 14 tackles and one interception. “The interception there was a big play for us. Just the impact he had on the game, I thought, was significant. You could feel him out there and he does a really good job for us.”

Upon further review: Lorenzo Alexander continues to amaze at age 35

Quote of the day

“When teams don’t get their run game going, it’s tough for them to win football games. They’re forcing us to throw it and when they do that, we’ve got to convert and we’ve got to make plays. I’ve got to make throws. We didn’t do it enough tonight.” – Bills quarterback Josh Allen

Snap count notes

1. Rookie guard Ike Boettger played 28 offensive snaps, 46 percent of the offensive total. The Bills used a rotation at guard, with rookie Wyatt Teller getting 49 snaps and veteran John Miller taking 45.

2. It was nearly an equal distribution of playing time between running backs LeSean McCoy and Keith Ford. McCoy took 31 snaps and Ford, an undrafted rookie, took 30.

3. Five defensive players – cornerbacks Tre’Davious White and Levi Wallace, safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds – played all 75 defensive snaps. Linebacker Lorenzo Alexander played 73 of 75.

4. New wide receiver Victor Bolden Jr. played five snaps, all on special teams. Linebacker Julian Stanford was limited to just six special-teams snaps because of an ankle injury.

5. Rookie undrafted free agent defensive end Mike Love played 22 defensive snaps. Veteran Eddie Yarbrough played just seven snaps.

Coming attractions

The Bills wrap up the 2018 season with a visit by the Miami Dolphins at 1 p.m. Sunday. Here are three things to know about the Dolphins:

1. They were eliminated from playoff contention Sunday. An ugly 17-7 home loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars dropped Miami to 7-8 this season and ended its hopes of a spot in the postseason. As a result, big changes could be coming in Miami. Personnel boss Mike Tannenbaum faces as uncertain future, as does coach Adam Gase.

2. Even if Tannenbaum and/or Gase returns, quarterback Ryan Tannehill isn’t expected to be with the Dolphins in 2019. Tannehill went 15 of 22 for 146 yards, one touchdown and one interception against a Jaguars team that packed it in a while ago. After the game, Gase said "I wish he would have played a little better. I wish he would have made some decisions that were different." Miami failed to reach 200 yards of offense for the third time in four games Sunday. “The offense was awful,” Gase said. “It was brutal to watch.”

3. Frank Gore’s season is over, but he doesn’t want his career to be. The 15-year veteran running back, 35, landed on injured reserve because of a sprained foot. The injury won’t require surgery, though, and Gore is interested in coming back for another season. In 14 games this season, he led the Dolphins with 722 rushing yards and an average of 4.6 yards per carry. He also had 12 catches for 124 yards and a touchdown.

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