The next time Buffalo Bills fans see the team’s new tight end, they may want to say thank you.
Without Tyler Kroft, after all, the team would be on an 18-year playoff drought. The heroics of Andy Dalton and Tyler Boyd in the Cincinnati Bengals’ victory over the Baltimore Ravens on the final week of the 2017 season are well remembered. The result of that game, of course, clinched a playoff spot for the Bills, who defeated the Dolphins a few minutes earlier.
While Dalton-to-Boyd will never be forgotten for Bills fans, the Bengals wouldn’t have pulled out a win that day without Kroft. He finished the game with six catches for 53 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“I’ve seen the video of everyone watching in the locker room,” Kroft said of the now-famous scene that unfolded. “Being a competitor, being a player, seeing all those grown men get to their goal … I got chills watching it. That’s what football’s about – those kinds of games.”
Now, Kroft has a big opportunity to help the Bills in a more direct fashion. After signing a three-year contract that can be worth up to $18.75 million, he’s got a chance to step into the starting role at tight end that was vacated when the team released Charles Clay earlier this offseason.
“Coming in, obviously the opportunity is there,” Kroft said. “Last season got cut a little short, but I wanted to build off the year prior and continue to grow – basically prove that I can play and start in this league.”
Kroft was on his way to doing that in 2017. His big game against the Ravens capped a season in which he started all 16 games and finished with 42 catches for 404 yards and seven touchdowns. Injury robbed him of the chance to build on that in 2018. Kroft appeared in just five games before a broken bone in his foot ended his season. He’s not completely healed from that injury, putting his participation in spring practices in jeopardy, but he should be 100 percent by the time training camp arrives.
The Bills evidently weren’t too concerned with Kroft’s health, targeting him early in free agency.
“When you look at his game and we looked in particular at the year when he became the starter, when (Tyler) Eifert was down, and how he stepped up and took hold of that opportunity,” coach Sean McDermott said. “What he's able to do in the pass and the run game. In meeting him when he came in, he and his wife, again another good interaction. A guy that's positive.”
Kroft grew up in Downingtown, Pa., about 30 miles outside Philadelphia. That’s not far from McDermott’s hometown, giving the coach and player a connection.
“I know his high school coach a little bit,” McDermott said. “All the reviews we had heard about him were positive.”
Kroft also had a previous relationship with quarterback Matt Barkley and center Russell Bodine from their time together in Cincinnati. Kroft liked everything they had to say about Buffalo, but ultimately was sold by General Manager Brandon Beane and McDermott.
“Honestly, it was more the staff and management, how everyone's pulling in the same direction,” he said. “There's a clear vision of what they want to do. Coming here, honestly, we've been blown away. It's been a great experience so far. It seems like Buffalo’s on the up, and I’m excited to be a part of it.”
Kroft certainly sounded like a player who fits the Bills’ mold during his introductory press conference last week. He used words like “blue collar, toughness and hard working” to describe growing up in Southeastern Pennsylvania – traits McDermott constantly talks about valuing.
“He said that exact mindset's up here, too,” Kroft said. “That's something we got pretty excited talking about.”
While Kroft’s contract runs for three years, the Bills essentially made it a one-year deal with options for the 2020 and ’21 seasons. That’s because Kroft can be released after the 2019 season with just $1.6 million in dead money against the 2020 salary cap.
There is also the possibility the team will add a tight end in the upcoming NFL draft later this month – perhaps with a top-100 pick. If that’s the case, it would add significant competition for the starting tight end job.
Kroft’s primary role with the Bengals was as a blocker.
“I think I’m a three-down tight end. To me, they're equally important,” Kroft said of his role in the run and pass games. “In Cincinnati, I was asked to block more. That was my job, so I'm going to do what I have to do for the team. That's kind of what I pride myself on, is doing what I have to do for the team to be successful."
With the Bills wanting to put in an offense that takes advantage of quarterback Josh Allen’s arm strength, the opportunity for Kroft to expand that role figures to be there.
“Everything I’ve seen of him, I liked a lot,” Kroft said of Allen. “I don't know exactly what my role is going to be here until the season comes, but tight end is traditionally underneath, so they can take the top off the defense and it'll open it up for me because they have to respect how well Josh throws the ball.”