This is the second part of a series looking at 10 questions facing the Bills entering training camp, which begins July 25. Today’s question: Who fills in for Tyler Kroft as the starting tight end?
It didn’t take long for the Buffalo Bills’ first major injury of 2019 to occur.
When tight end Tyler Kroft broke his foot during the first practice of the spring, it created a big hole in the projected starting lineup. Who will fill in looms as one of the most important issues the team has to sort out this summer.
“Injuries are unfortunate. I know there’s no one that wants to be out here more than Tyler,” offensive coordinator Brian Daboll said, “but we’ve added some very good depth.”
If there was a betting favorite on who will emerge, it would be rookie Dawson Knox. General Manager Brandon Beane traded a pair of fourth-round draft picks to Washington to move into the bottom of the third round and select Knox out of Ole Miss. At 6-foot-4 and 257 pounds, with a 40-yard dash time in the 4.5-second range, Knox compares physically to T.J. Hockenson, the Iowa tight end drafted eighth overall by the Detroit Lions.
At the time, it didn’t look like a move to acquire a Day One starter. Knox’s NFL.com scouting report calls him “much more moldable clay than game-ready prospect at this point.” Kroft’s injury, though, may not allow the Bills the luxury of bringing along Knox slowly.
While there are other tight ends on the roster – most notably veterans Lee Smith and Jason Croom – none of them possess the combination of size and speed as Knox. Smith’s role is basically set as the No. 2 tight end. His primary job on the field will be as a blocker. Off the field, he’s looked at as one of the team’s leaders. Croom, meanwhile, missed the bulk of spring practices with a hamstring injury, opening the door for Knox and seventh-round draft pick Tommy Sweeney to get more reps.
“They’ve made the most of their opportunities in unpadded practices,” Daboll said of the drafted tight ends. “They’ve done a good job. It will be a good competition.”
If there was an upside to Kroft’s injury, it’s that it happened early enough in the offseason for the Bills to give Knox and Sweeney extended looks. Still, only so much information can be gathered during the spring, when, as Daboll pointed out, players practice without pads.
Things change soon. The Bills report to St. John Fisher College for their first practice of training camp July 25. Soon after, padded practices will begin. That’s when Daboll can see how Knox handles the physicality of the NFL – whether it’s blocking a defensive end or dealing with tight coverage from linebackers.
The rookie clearly has the most potential but, for now, that’s all it is.
“A guy that didn’t have a ton of production in college, but definitely had the skill set, size, athletic ability that you can project,” Daboll said. “But, again, until they get out here and actually do some of the things we need them to do …”
The offensive coordinator never quite finished sharing his thought, but his point was made. Until they see more from Knox in a live-game setting, they don’t know exactly what they have.
Tight end is one of the more demanding positions for a rookie at the NFL level, given that a player is required to have a full understanding of the blocking scheme and route running. Knox admitted during the spring that his head was spinning, but so far he likes what he’s seen out of Daboll’s offense.
“It has a lot of moving parts, lots of motions and shifts and stuff like that,” he said. “I’m not thinking about yesterday’s plays, I’m not thinking about tomorrow’s plays, I’m just trying to keep my head on what today has, where I’m going to line up, how I’m going to do the job, and if the ball comes my way, it’s fun to catch it.”
At least in the spring, the signs were promising. Knox was one of quarterback Josh Allen’s favorite targets in practices open to the media.
“Right now, I’m just kind of keeping my head down, working day to day, not thinking about what the season has, what camp has,” Knox said before the Bills broke for the summer. “I’m just trying to stay on top of the playbook right now, doing whatever they ask of me, whether it’s with the ‘ones, twos or threes.’ Whoever is throwing, I’m going to do my best to run and catch it.”
That’s something Knox didn’t get a bunch of chances to do in college. On an offense that featured two wide receivers drafted in the second round (D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown) and another who was signed as an undrafted free agent (Demarcus Lodge), Knox found himself playing fourth fiddle. He never caught a touchdown pass during his college career, finishing with 39 catches for 605 yards in 28 games played.
“Everyone wants the ball to come to them every play, just so they can help the team,” Knox said of dealing with the frustration that came with not being utilized much in the passing game. “I’m the same. If I’m asked to block, I’m going to do that to the best of my ability. If I’m asked to run a route, I’m hoping I’m going to get the ball. If I do, I’m trying to make the most out of it. I don’t really have a say on where he throws it, but if he throws it my way, I want to make the most of my opportunity.”