State of the Bills: Tight end

Dawson Knox
Photo credit Photo: Bryan M. Bennett - Getty Images

My State of the Bills series continues with a look at the tight end position headed into the 2020 offseason:

Under contract:

  • Dawson Knox
  • Tyler Kroft
  • Tommy Sweeney
  • Lee Smith
  • Nate Becker

Pending Free Agents:

  • Jason Croom (Exclusive Rights) 

State of the Position:

The Bills completely overhauled their tight end position last offseason. Not one tight end on the active roster in 2019 was on the team the year before. Jason Croom was, but he wound up on injured reserve after training camp and stayed there the entire season. Otherwise, they signed Tyler Kroft and Lee Smith as free agents, drafted Dawson Knox and Tommy Sweeney, and signed Nate Becker, who was originally signed as an undrafted free agent by the Detroit Lions but released shortly after.

Kroft was supposed to be their top tight end, evidenced by his three-year, $18.75 million contract, but that plan was altered really fast when he suffered a broken foot on the very first day of organized team activities. That allowed Knox and Sweeney opportunities to get more reps, and both players impressed. However, Knox hurt his hamstring in training camp, which then gave Becker a chance to show the coaching staff what he could do, and he also made a positive impression.  

When it was all said and done after the dust settled and the regular season was in full swing, Knox was the team’s No. 1 tight end, Smith its top blocking tight end, and Kroft contributed a handful of catches and as a blocker after missing the first five games. Sweeney played until Knox come back, then was inactive the rest of the season except for the finale when Knox rested. Becker was on the practice squad all season, then re-signed to a future/reserve contract for 2020.

Knox put together a really nice season, finishing with the second-most yards among rookie tight ends with 388. He showed good route-running, excellent run after the catch ability, and became a solid blocker. However, he had too many dropped passes. It seemed like there was at least one a week. Depending on what the team does with Kroft (more on that below), Knox will ether go into camp as the No. 1 tight end, or at least fighting for that spot with Kroft. He has a ton of potential and can be a matchup problem for a lot of defenses. The drops have to go away, but the hope is that will happen as he gets more experience and reps. He didn’t have many before last season since he was a quarterback in high school and moved to tight end during his college career at Ole Miss, catching a total of only 39 passes.

Kroft is an interesting situation for the Bills. They can release him this offseason and save $5 million in cap space (using $1.6 million in dead cap money). But they don’t need the extra space and he’s still the most experienced pass-catching tight end on the roster. The thought here is the Bills would rather have him than not and want to make sure they have as much insurance and depth given the inexperience of Knox, Sweeney, Becker, and Croom.

I wouldn’t call Smith an absolute lock to make the roster next season, but he’s probably pretty close to it. Fans complain about how often he’s used, but he was on the field for less than 30% of the offensive snaps last year (and more than 25% in only one of the last seven game), and is one of the best blockers in the NFL for his position. Almost every team has a guy like Smith, and it’s good to have one. They also gave Smith a three-year, $9 million deal, and cutting him would only save $1.75 million versus $1.5 million still on the cap.

I really liked what I saw from both Sweeney and Becker in their limited opportunities in camp and preseason. The issue is both are buried on the roster. They’ll be back at camp and will have a chance to show they grew even more and give the coaches a reason to keep them on the active roster, keeping four tight ends again, or at the expense of (most likely) either Kroft or Smith.

Jason Croom was the Bills’ leading tight end as far as catches (22) and yards (259) in 2018. He may have been in danger of not making the roster in 2019, but an injury allowed the team to put him on injured reserve and give him another shot next season, provided they re-sign him. He’s an Exclusive Rights Free Agent, which means the team only has to offer him the minimum salary for a third-year player to retain his rights, which I’d expect them to do. Croom does offer good athleticism and can be a nice option in the receiving game, but with the competition in front of and around him now, it will probably be an uphill battle this coming summer.

Heading into this offseason, some believe the Bills should look to add, yet, another tight end. I’m not as convinced. I think they have the kind of mix they want and that can be effective, especially with Knox growing another year. Also, considering the money they spent on Kroft and Smith last offseason, paired with using two draft pick assets on Knox and Sweeney, including trading two fourth rounders to move into the third round for Knox, it's hard to see them using even more premium assets and cash on the position again this offseason, especially with other more pressing needs.

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