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Iowa's T.J. Hockenson would fill Bills' epic drought at tight end

Eighteen years.

That’s how long it has been since the Buffalo Bills have had a tight end who ranked in the top 10 at his position in catches in the NFL.

Jay Riemersma did it for Buffalo in 2001 when he ranked fifth among tight ends with 53 receptions.

Now consider that over the past five years, an average of nine tight ends a year have caught at least 60 passes in a season.

The last time a Bills tight end caught 60 passes? That was 26 years ago, when Pete Metzelaars caught 68 in 1993. And that was the only time a Bills TE caught at least 60 balls.

Yes, the Bills’ franchise is starved for an elite tight end.

The Bills could be in position to take the best tight end in the draft at No. 9 on Thursday. Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson is ranked by many draft analysts as a top-10 prospect.

Here’s a capsule look at the Bills’ tight end outlook entering the draft, considering it’s a virtual certainty they will draft one this week:

The case for Hockenson: It’s unfair to call any player the “next Rob Gronkowski,” but the Iowa tight end shows elite ability to make plays down the seam and should be one of the better blocking tight ends in the league right away. At 6-foot-4 3/4 and 251 pounds, he ran 4.70 seconds in the 40-yard dash, the same time as Eagles Pro Bowler Zach Ertz. Gronkowski ran roughly the same (a hand-timed 4.68) entering the 2010 draft. The 6-6, 258-pound Gronkowski is a tad bigger (his arm length is 34 1/4 vs. 32 1/4 for Hockenson). NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said Jason Witten, Dallas' 11-time Pro Bowler, is a better comparison.

"I know a lot of people have made the comparison with Gronk," Jeremiah said. "Gronk is a unicorn. As big and as athletic as he was, I don’t know if we’ll ever see anybody like him. But with Hockenson, I just look and see Jason Witten’s career. I think he's got a chance to be that same guy."

The case against Hockenson: Edge rusher, offensive tackle and defensive tackle easily could be viewed as bigger needs than tight end, and there’s a good chance a player will be on the board at one of those spots at No. 9 who the Bills have rated higher than Hockenson. Jacksonville (No. 7) and Detroit (No. 8) are candidates to take Hockenson. It’s also a deep draft for tight ends. The Bills could decide they can get good value for a tight end with big upside in the second or third rounds.

Rating the Bills’ need: The Bills could live with Tyler Kroft and Jason Croom as their top two at the position entering training camp, with a rookie taken outside the first round challenging them. Converted tackle Jake Fisher, a blocking TE candidate, is the only other tight end on the roster.

Kroft started 35 games for Cincinnati over the past four seasons. He caught 42 passes and seven TDs in 2017. Croom is a developing, down-the-field threat who caught 22 passes last season. What are the chances Croom will take a great leap forward in 2019?

Given the fact Kroft is comfortable playing attached to the tackle and Fisher is a big blocking candidate, the Bills have the luxury of drafting a one-dimensional, receiving tight end prospect if an all-around prospect isn’t on the board.

Second- and third-round options: Iowa’s Noah Fant won’t be on the board for the the Bills’ second-round pick (No. 40). Alabama’s Irv Smith might be available. He can block in-line and play from the slot. He’s not quite as big a target (he’s 6-2, 3/8) but he’s a relatively safe pick. The Bills probably will have some good options – albeit less sure bets – if they wait until pick No. 74 in the third round. They include San Diego State’s Kahale Warring and Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger (who visited the Bills). Both have upside as receivers. Warring may be able to develop into a blocker, too. Third- or fourth-round prospects include Ole Miss’ Dawson Knox (an elite athlete with low production), Notre Dame’s Alize Mack (an athletic, slot TE), San Jose State’s Josh Oliver (a slot TE) and LSU’s Foster Moreau (an all-around TE).

TE draft history: Only eight tight ends have been taken in the first round in the last 10 years. Only one tight end has been drafted in the top 10 in the last 12 years (Eric Ebron in 2014). Only six tight ends have been taken in the top 10 in the last 40 years.

Last year, seven NFL starting tight ends were No. 1 picks, seven were No. 2s, eight were No. 3s and 10 were taken in the fourth round or later. Of the top 10 tight ends in catches last year, only two were first-rounders.

Brandon Beane on TEs: The Bills general manager talked last week about the challenge of projecting how a tight end will develop in the NFL.

“Tight end is kind of a two-part player, almost three,” Beane said. “What does he bring as a run blocker? What does he do as a pass blocker? Then what does he do in the passing game? As we’re going through these tight ends, those are the three areas we focus on. Let’s watch his receiving skills. Let’s grade him there. Then what does he do as an in-line blocker? What does he do when he’s not attached? Do they keep him in (to block) in the passing game at all or is he always going out for a route?

“So many of them are flexed out in the college game, and we’re even seeing that into our game,” Beane said. “It’s definitely a projection.”

Given relatively few colleges ask their tight ends to be good blockers, Beane said NFL teams try to get assistant coaches to assess the blocking capability during spring predraft workouts.

“If it’s not something you’ve seen on tape that you think the guy can do, then you want to try to get one of your coaches out there to work with him and get him out on the grass,” Beane said. “It’s not pads. But at least see where their fundamentals are. And if they don’t have them, can they be coached? Sometimes they’ll teach them some things and see how quickly they’re picking it up.”

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