This is the fourth in a series previewing each position on the Buffalo Bills before the July 25 start of training camp.
The Buffalo Bills’ situation at tight end is best described as unsettled heading into the start of training camp.
The starter the past four years at the position, Charles Clay, was released at the start of the offseason – a move that was expected after he had the worst season of his eight-year career in 2018, catching just 21 passes for 184 yards and failing to score a touchdown. Clay, who has since signed with Arizona, had one year left on his contract, and is counting $4.5 million against the Bills’ salary cap.
The initial plan to replace Clay in the starting lineup is on hold. Tyler Kroft, who signed a three-year, $18.75 million contract with the Bills as an unrestricted free agent, suffered a broken foot during spring practices. He broke the same foot in Week 5 last season with the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Bills haven’t offered a definitive timeline on when Kroft will be able to return, but a report from NFL Network put his expected timetable at right around the start of the regular season. Without participating in training camp or the preseason, however, it’s pure speculation to think that Kroft will be able to contribute right away.
That means, at least for the time being, the job is wide open. Candidates include Jason Croom, the only returning tight end from last year’s roster, as well as draft picks Dawson Knox and Tommy Sweeney.
“It is young, it’s afforded us a chance for our young guys to get out there and get a ton of reps,” coach Sean McDermott said of Kroft’s injury. "We’ve been able to see more of Tommy and Dawson and their rep counts have been higher naturally, so they are exposed to more football for us to evaluate and for them to get the feedback off of the film. That’s been a good thing. I hate to say it with Tyler not in there. We do need Tyler back to develop a rapport with Josh (Allen) and to get comfortable for his own well-being as well.”
Veteran Lee Smith, who returns to the Bills after four seasons with the Oakland Raiders, might end up being the starter, but he is expected to primarily fill a blocking role.
Returnees: Jason Croom, Keith Towbridge (practice squad member).
Newcomers: Lee Smith (Raiders), Tyler Kroft (Bengals), Dawson Knox (draft, third round), Tommy Sweeney (draft, seventh round), Nate Becker (undrafted free agent).
Departures: Charles Clay (Cardinals), Logan Thomas (Cardinals), Khari Lee (free agent).
Key numbers: The Bills didn’t have a player in the top 35 in receiving yardage among tight ends in 2018 – Croom was No. 36 with 259 yards. That’s atrocious production, especially considering Clay counted $9 million against the team’s salary cap (thanks a lot, Doug Whaley). Croom also had the team’s only touchdown reception among tight ends. There were 41 players around the league who had at least two.
What to expect: The Bills have dealt with several injuries this spring, but Kroft’s is easily the most concerning. The fact that he broke the same foot last year creates legitimate worry that his injury was either never fully healed, or that he has some sort of chronic condition that caused it to happen again. Either way, it’s unlikely he’s ready to contribute early in the season.
That’s good news for Croom, who otherwise would have been on the roster bubble with Kroft, Smith and Knox ahead of him on the depth chart. Croom struggled last year with fumbles, losing two of them on just 22 catches.
By dealing away a pair of fourth-round draft picks to move into the third round and select Knox, the Bills made a fairly significant investment. There is no question he’ll be on the 53-man roster, but several scouting reports leading up to the draft considered him a “raw” prospect who would need significant time to develop. With Kroft hurt, do the Bills have that kind of time?
“He is going to bring, obviously, athleticism,” quarterback Josh Allen said of Knox. “He’s a younger guy, but he knows his stuff. He’s a very, very smart kid and you can tell just by talking to him a little bit. Him in the huddle knowing where he is lining up and knowing what route he has to run and he’s not really asking any questions in the huddle and that’s a good thing because he doesn’t have to. He knows what he’s doing.”
Smith, who spent the first four years of his career with the Bills before spending the last four in Oakland, fits the profile of a veteran leader who McDermott prefers to have in each position group. Although he made just 10 catches last season, three went for touchdowns. He’s not going to be counted on to put up big numbers, but will play a lot in a blocking role.