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Free agency preview: Tight end addition would give Bills versatility

(This is the next in a series on the Buffalo Bills’ key needs entering NFL free agency. The first installment focused on wide receivers, while the second looked at the offensive line and the third looked at the defensive line.)

It’s impossible to evaluate the tight ends in the NFL’s free-agent market without also considering the tight ends in the 2019 draft class.

The tight end crop in free agency is thin. The tight end crop in the draft is deep, especially with pass-catching prospects.

It makes perfect sense for the Bills to try to find a better blocking tight end in the free-agent market.

That was the signal sent last week when the Bills hosted Dwayne Allen, just released from the New England Patriots, on a free-agent visit.

Allen is an in-line, veteran tight end who might have helped. But he signed with Miami on Saturday.

The Bills didn’t have enough good play-making or good blocking from tight ends in 2018. Starter Charles Clay ranked 42nd among NFL tight ends in catches with 21. He was released.

The Bills used two tight ends on 11 percent of their offensive snaps, according to News statistics. That was less than the league average of about 16 percent, according to Sharp Football.

A team with two high quality tight ends gives a defense matchup problems. If the defense wants to keep three linebackers on the field, the offense can pass. Put a fifth defensive back on the field, the offense can pound the run game.

The Bills didn’t have that kind of versatility last year.

Bills General Manager Brandon Beane acknowledged he’d like to give offensive coordinator Brian Daboll more inclination to use “12” personnel (one back, two TEs), if the matchup warrants it.

“Yeah,” Beane said. “That’s where I put it on me. The more options I give Brian Daboll to come up with legit packages – you run 12, you can run 21 (two backs, two receivers and a tight end), you can do whatever. But if you don't have players who are mismatches, I’m not really helping Brian. .... The more matchup players we can get – tight end, receiver, running back – the more dynamic our offense can be.”

Jared Cook might be the biggest name among the free agent tight ends, but he will be 32 in April and could command more than the Bills are willing to spend. Cook is coming off a two-year, $10.6 million deal that included $5 million guaranteed and is expecting a raise.

Pittsburgh free agent Jesse James is the next best all-around tight end on the market.

James, who turns 25 in June, was a fifth-round pick of the Steelers in 2015. He caught 39 passes in 2016, 43 in 2017 and 30 last season (for an impressive 14.1-yard average). Pittsburgh’s acquisition of Vance McDonald, who emerged into an impact starter, pushed James to a No. 2 role. But James is a huge target, at 6-foot-7, 261 pounds, and he’s an effective blocker in the run game and in pass protection.

James could allow the Bills to draft more of a receiving tight end and let that player compete with developing incumbent Jason Croom.

If the Bills want to take a chance on an athletic tight end with more potential in the passing game, Kansas City's Demetrius Harris and Cincinnati’s Tyler Eifert are two free agents who come with risk.

Harris, who turns 28 in July, didn’t play college football. He was a basketball player at Wisconsin-Milwaukee who Kansas City has worked to develop over the past five years. He has only 57 catches in five years, with 17 in 2018. Harris ran fleet 40 times of 4.57 and 4.62 seconds coming out of college. His athleticism is tantalizing. But he hasn’t been consistent yet. He also was suspended for a game to open last season due to a 2017 marijuana arrest.

Eifert, 28, was a first-round pick in 2018 who has elite talent. He made the Pro Bowl in 2015 after grabbing 13 TD passes. But injuries have derailed his career. He missed almost all of 2016 due to back surgery and all of 2017 with a broken ankle.

Another player in the "take-a-flier" category is Jacksonville's Austin Sefarian-Jenkins. His production hasn't lived up to his ideal size, at 6-5, 262. He caught 50 passes for a middling 357 yards for the Jets in 2017. He managed just 11 catches for the Jaguars in 2018.

If the Bills want to take a chance on a lower-cost blocker, options include Baltimore’s Maxx Williams and Pittsburgh’s Xavier Grimble. Williams, who caught 16 passes last year, is a former second-round pick. The 261-pound Grimble is a restricted free agent. The Steelers have the right to match any deal he gets but don’t get any compensation of they don’t match. He was undrafted.

Signing a tight end would not preclude the Bills from drafting at the position. The Iowa duo of T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant are considered borderline first-round talents. Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr., Georgia’s Isaac Nauta, Stanford’s Kaden Smith, Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger and UCLA’s Caleb Wilson are also considered prospects who could go in the first two days of the draft (rounds 1 through 3).

TOP FREE AGENT TIGHT ENDS

Jared Cook, Raiders
6-5, 254, 31 years old

Demetrius Harris, Chiefs
6-5 1-2, 230 27 years old

Jesse James, Steelers
6-7, 261, 24 years old

Tyler Eifert, Bengals
6-6, 255, 28 years old

Austin Seferian-Jenkins

6-5, 262, 26 years old

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