Bills could use an upgrade at tight end. Here are their options in draft and free agency
Just look at how Gronk destroyed the Buffalo Bills for much of the previous decade when he was with the hated New England Patriots – 15 games, 69 catches for 1,070 yards and 12 TDs, which are the most he’s had in every category against one team.
Sticking just to 2020, look at what the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce did to the Bills in two games this season – 18 catches for 183 yards and four TDs. Or Mike Gesicki’s two-game total for the Dolphins, 13 for 177 and one TD; or Darren Waller of Oakland who had nine catches for 88 yards; or Noah Fant of Denver, who had eight catches for 68 yards and a TD.
The 2020 season provided a stark reminder of how deficient the Bills are at the tight end position. The Bills’ defense gave up 963 yards worth of completions to opposing tight ends, the second-most in the league.
Meanwhile, the Bills’ tight ends – Dawson Knox, Tyler Kroft, Lee Smith and Reggie Gilliam – managed only 458 yards and ranked 31st in the NFL in receptions with 42. The season-high for catches by a Buffalo tight end in a game was six by Knox (for just 42 yards), and the season-high for yards was Kroft’s 64 against the Rams.
When you get right down to it, the lack of production from their tight ends didn’t exactly hurt the Bills. After all, they finished third in the league in passing yards (4,786) and first downs achieved via the pass (240); tied for third in passing TDs (40); and fourth in pass plays of at least 20 yards (66).
Their passing game, with Josh Allen delivering to receivers Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, Gabriel Davis and John Brown, was next level, so it’s tough to complain.
But here’s something to consider as the Bills start making preparations for retooling their roster in free agency and the draft. As general manager Brandon Beane said, nothing the team accomplished in 2020 is going to matter in 2021.
In fact, all of those gaudy numbers the passing game produced will only alert the teams who play Buffalo next season and they’ll have an offseason of tape study to take a deep dive into what made the Bills so successful. What protections did they use, what routes did they favor, which route combinations got receivers open the most?
Buffalo offensive coordinator Brian Daboll will need several counter punches, and one way to change things up would be to upgrade at tight end and incorporate that player into the offense.
“I thought it was up and down, to be honest with you,” Beane said when he was asked to assess the tight end group. “It was never where the opposing defense was like, ‘Man, we’ve got to stop their tight ends from going off.’ So we’ll look to that group. At the end of the day we’d love to have a guy like what we just faced (Kelce), but they don’t come very often. We’ve got some guys here we want to continue to develop and see what happens. Obviously if there’s ways to add competition, whether that’s in free agency or the draft, we would do that, as well.”
Given the Bills’ tight salary cap situation, it’s going to be difficult to bring in a veteran in free agency.
Assuming he isn’t re-signed by the Chargers before he hits the market, Hunter Henry would seem like the top prize. Last season he caught 60 passes for 613 yards and 4 TDs. The 2016 second-round pick has 196 career receptions for 2,322 yards and 21 TDs, but sports contract website spotrac.com projects his market value at $10.9 average annual salary.
Tennessee’s Jonnu Smith had 41 catches for 448 yards, the Rams’ Gerald Everett had 41 catches for 417 yards and 1 TD. They are projected at $8 million and $7.3 annual salary.
Gronkowski actually led the free agent tight ends with 623 yards on 45 catches, but it would be a huge shock if he doesn’t re-sign with Tom Brady and the Buccaneers.
Outside those players, the market thins out pretty quickly unless the Bills want to pursue a trade for a player under contract. Maybe the Eagles, who may be in a rebuild, would deal either Zach Ertz or Dallas Goedert.
If the Bills look to the draft, which is always a difficult proposition at tight end because the jump from college to the pros is massive, there are a couple names to consider.
Florida’s Kyle Pitts will almost certainly be the first tight end to come off the board as Pro Football Focus’ draft analysts project him to be a first-rounder and it’s uncertain whether he’d even last to Buffalo’s pick at No. 30. A hint: probably not. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler has Pitts No. 5 on his top 100 prospects list.
Pitts is a glorified receiver at 6 feet 5 and 235 pounds, long and lean with great speed and agility, a player who proved he could get separation against cornerbacks, let alone safeties and linebackers. Over the past two seasons he caught 97 passes on 135 targets for 1,419 yards and 17 TDs.
Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth has the same size dimensions as Kelce – 6 feet 5, 260 pounds. He was an outstanding in-line blocker for the Nittany Lions and in the last full college season in 2019 he caught 43 passes on 61 targets for 507 yards and 7 TDs.
The season before he had eight TD receptions on his 26 catches, so he can clearly make plays. He’s projected as a second-round pick by PFF and Brugler rates him No. 47 on his top 100 list.
The only other tight ends that rate for Brugler are Hunter Long of Boston College (No. 79) and Brevin Howard of Miami (82), both of whom figure to be nothing more than depth options in the NFL.
At this point, the Bills’ best hope may be that Knox can finally stay healthy and makes a quantum leap, but no one should be holding their breath on that one.
Sal Maiorana can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.