Throughout the 2019 NFL off-season, the Buffalo Bills made a few things clear. Among those few things is a pinpoint aggressiveness in fixing a tight end position that had struggled as a whole in years past. Via work done in free agency, releases, and the NFL Draft, the Bills should enter 2019 with a tight end unit as listed below.
(1) Tyler Kroft (2) Dawson Knox (3) Lee Smith (4) Tommy Sweeney
You’ll notice a lack of Jason Croom on the depth chart; that’s not a mistake. Though Croom has NFL experience with the Bills, he’s a developmental project with far more potential than production. Yet, so far, he hasn’t proved either are superior to the four listed.
The tight end group starts with Tyler Kroft — a free agency addition (three years, $18.750 million) by way of the Cincinnati Bengals. Kroft’s production throughout his four-year is minimal — 67 catches for 661 yards and eight touchdowns — with an outlier year in 2017. Filling in for oft-injured Pro Bowler Tyler Eifert, Kroft caught 42 catches for 404 yards and seven touchdowns.
Before 2017, Kroft was an anomaly; as a backup tight end behind a proven starter. But, following his breakout year, the 6-foot-6, 252-pound tight end was expected to flourish in an offense that should now give him touches. However, injuries derailed that thought, as a broken foot ended his season fives week in.
Despite finishing 2018 on the injured reserve, the Bills took a calculated gamble in Kroft. His potential as move tight end is immense — he’s a massive target with excellent ball skills and developed route-running — and they must’ve seen that. Due to his broken foot, the Bills gave him a frontloaded contract in case of injury. It turns out, that was the right move; he re-broke his foot during OTAs.
Kroft is expected to be back by week one and should start if he gets ample practice time in training camp. Though he boasts a limited resume, his tape when starting is promising. But, if he doesn’t, the Bills have a rookie tight end on the roster by the name of Dawson Knox.
In many ways, Knox was the most polarizing tight end in the 2019 NFL Draft class. He didn’t a touchdown in his two seasons playing with the Ole Miss Rebels. For his career, he’s tallied 39 receptions for 605 yards. Yet, he’s incredibly intriguing.
At 6-foot-4 and 254-pounds, Knox has an NFL-ready frame. Though he didn’t test much at the NFL Combine, his athleticism is evident and pops off the tape. Far too often he found himself blowing by linebackers and defensive backs alike in a jiffy. But the real intrigue comes from him being essentially a blank slate with good traits.
Due to his minimal experience, Knox is a bit of an unknown. His route-running is smooth, but there’s a glaring lack of depth to his tree. He has a reasonably large catch radius, but he was rarely targeted on fades or in contested catch situations. He’s explosive off the line, and is as aggressive can be both as a receiver and blocker, but again, he was underutilized.
Knox is essentially a 22-year-old, 6-foot-4, 254-pound sponge. He has ideal traits to be a top or even superstar tight end in the NFL, but he has to combine that with continuous development and experience in all facets. His athleticism alone may help him see plenty of playing time as a rookie, and I wouldn’t be surprised, if, by seasons end, he’s the starter.
Knox’s landing spot is critical to his pro outlook as he has only spent two seasons at the tight end position, and in the pre-draft timeframe, trust will be a big part of the evaluation. A la George Kittle, Knox has the tangible and intangible traits you take a risk on developing in the 40-70 range of the draft despite his lack of usage as a receiver in college.
With Lee Smith, the Bills know what they are getting, largely in part because he played in Buffalo for four seasons before heading to Oakland. In case the brain needs a jog down football-memory lane; Smith is a sure-handed tight end that specializes in the art of the block. He’s widely considered as one of the NFL’s best blocking specialists. He earned a three-year, $9 million contract from the Bills after his release from Oakland because of so.
Smith won’t play much of a role as a receiver — he’s caught 66 passes for 392 yards and seven touchdowns in eight seasons — but he was proficient in the red zone for the Raiders in 2018. According to PlayerProfiler.com, Smith caught four passes in the red zone and turned them into three touchdowns. He also finished the season with a 100% true catch rate. That’s called efficiency.
Last on the depth chart is rookie Tommy Sweeney — a seventh-round pick hailing from Boston College. Like fellow rookie Knox, Sweeney possesses an NFL-ready frame standing in at 6-foot-4, 251-pounds. Unlike him, he’s not quite an athletic marvel. However, Sweeney has a leg up in college production.
For three years, Sweeney was a key-cog in BC’s offense. He finished his college career with 99 catches for 1,281 yards and ten scores. He’s a well-developed route-runner and has reliable hands — as indicated by two drops in 2018, according to Pro Football Focus. Where Sweeney needs to improve is as a blocker. But, time in the weight room and further understanding of leverage points can negate his lack of quickness, speed, and natural power.
Sweeney is a high-floor, low ceiling prospect. His game should translate well to the NFL, as it thrives on cerebral-ness and short-area proficiency. If he can develop into a plus blocker, Sweeney should serve as a valuable second tight end for the Bills down the line. As of now, Buffalo won’t have to rely on him much considering their new talent on the roster.