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Lack of tight ends no laughing matter for Bills

INDIANAPOLIS – Sean McDermott jokingly asked a reporter last week if he would be able to play tight end for the Buffalo Bills.

At least, we think the team’s head coach was joking.

The truth is, his team could use the help right about now – no matter who it comes from. The Bills currently have just one tight end under contract for the 2019 season – making it a certainty that they will add to the position in the coming weeks and months. Whether that’s through free agency or the draft – or a combination of both -- remains to be seen.

“We’re going to have to look to address that position in some way, shape or form – for sure,” McDermott said. “There’s obviously plenty of opportunities between now and the opening day to make sure we’ve got the right players at that position.

The good news for the Bills, at least in terms of the draft, is that it’s considered a deeper-than-usual class. A total of 21 tight ends participated in this year’s NFL Scouting Combine, which is more than a normal year.

“I can find you tight ends in every round in this draft,” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “It’s a really, really good group.”

Bills General Manager Brandon Beane agreed, although he believes it will be a challenge to find the rare tight end who can do it all.

“There’s some depth at tight end,” he said. “From my point of view, and it’s the same as free agency, there are some guys who are really good athletes that maybe need to improve their blocking. Or maybe they weren’t asked to block, so we’ve got to do some more research and maybe they can once they’re taught. There will be a growth opportunity for them.”

Every team is after the next Rob Gronkowski, the Amherst native who has dominated for the New England Patriots. Gronk can block like an offensive lineman and catch like a wide receiver, making him a matchup nightmare for defenses.

Finding the next Gronk, however, is easier said than done. The player in this year’s class who might be closest is Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson.

“I love Hockenson,” Jeremiah said. “I think he’s the safest player in the draft. … I did him the day after watching Rob Gronkowski live in person in the playoff game against the Chargers, and I saw Gronk completely dominate a football game without really having to catch the ball. He was just so dominant in the run game.

“And then I flip on this kid, and he’s not as tall as Gronk. I don’t compare anybody to Gronk – he’s on a whole different level in terms of what he can do – but I saw this kid with that same temperament and nastiness in the run game. Then on top of that, he does nothing but get open and catch everything they throw to him. He’s going to be a very valuable player with a very high floor as well as a high ceiling.”

Hockenson, 6-foot-5 and 251 pounds, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.7 seconds Saturday. He also managed 17 reps on the 225-pound bench press, and finished second among tight ends with a 37.5-inch vertical leap and 10-foot, 3-inch broad jump.

“I think being a versatile tight end is something special, especially now,” he said. “Being able to flex out, being able to be in a three-point stance, being able to do it all is something I pride myself on being able to do. … I feel like my best football is yet to come.”

Hockenson might not be the only Iowa tight end to be drafted in the first round. Hawkeyes teammate Noah Fant put together a dominant combine performance, leading all tight ends with a 4.5-second 40 time. He also had the best vertical (39.5 inches), broad jump (10 feet, 7 inches) and three-cone drill time (6.81 seconds). His 20 reps on the bench press also answered one of the questions about his strength.

“I feel like I’m a great overall tight end,” Fant said the day before his workout. “I feel like after my field workout, people will really get to see my speed, get to see my jumping ability. At the bench, they’ll get to see my power. So, people who really haven’t gotten to see that yet, I’m hoping to put up big numbers.”

Whether it ends up being Hockenson, Fant or someone else, the Bills could use the help, especially after releasing Charles Clay last month.

“Charles, what more can you say about a guy and what he’s meant to an organization, what he meant to me in my first two years as a head coach?” McDermott said. “The leadership, the way he battled through injuries, he helped us get it off the ground in Buffalo and I’ll always be indebted to Charles for that. We certainly wish him well in Arizona. That said, we just feel like right now, we’re moving in a different direction and we’re obviously going to look hard at every position, tight end being one of them, to improve our football team.”

Currently, Jason Croom is the only tight end under contract. The Bills could offer restricted free agent Logan Thomas an original-round tender (meaning a team would owe the Bills a fourth-round pick if they signed Thomas and Buffalo chose not to match the contract), but that would cost $2.025 million, which may be more than the Bills want to spend.

“You want to make sure you’ve got the young quarterback – or any quarterback – protected,” McDermott said. “If you start there and start building out from there, the tight end is an important position for a quarterback. Being around a couple good tight ends in my history, both in Philadelphia and Carolina, namely in Chad Lewis and then in Greg Olsen, you see how that helps a young quarterback when he becomes a security blanket.”

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