OPINION: 2021 State of the Bills: Tight end

The team needs more production from the unit

My "2021 State of the Bills" series continues with a look at the tight ends as the team heads into the offseason:

Under contract:
• Dawson Knox
• Reggie Gilliam
• Lee Smith
• Nate Becker
• Tommy Sweeney

Pending Free Agents:
• Tyler Kroft

State of the position:

Buffalo Bills fans spent a lot of time talking about the tight end position this past season, and for two reasons:

1.) They were one of the worst teams in the league at defending opposing tight ends.
2.) They lacked that true game-changing, dynamic, mismatch tight end that some other teams seem to have that could take their offense to an even higher level.

Both of these facts were evident in the same game when they faced the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game.

Bills fans watched their offense struggle to move the ball much of the game, with wide receivers not able to get separation, but no other option truly presented itself for Josh Allen. Dawson Knox didn’t have a bad game at all, finishing with six catches for 42 yards and a three-yard touchdown. While it’s not a truly fair comparison, considering Travis Kelce is a future Hall of Famer, watching his 13 catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns on the other side of the field really showed the difference between where the two teams are at the position.

Knox is a good player, and can pose his own mismatches, at times, especially when he has the ball in his hands against smaller defensive backs. However, he never caught more than four passes in a single regular season game this season, and topped out at 51 yards in any one contest.

In fact, no Bills tight end caught more than four passes in any regular season game in 2020, and only twice did any tight end go over 50 yards.

The problem, of course, is that these types of tight ends don’t just fall from the sky. They aren’t easily obtainable, especially when you need one right away.

The Bills are trying to contend for a Super Bowl right now, and don’t want to wait a couple more years for a tight end to develop. That’s why free agency may be the route they have to go this offseason to try and get better at the position.

Knox is atop the depth chart at the moment, and he’s still on his rookie contract for two more seasons. He’s a nice player to have, and hopefully will only get better. He’s still pretty raw at the spot overall, but after him, there are a lot of question marks.

Tyler Kroft restructured his contract last offseason and is now scheduled to become a free agent because of that. At one point early this season, it looked like he may be taking over the No. 1 role, but he only dressed for 10 games, was often inactive, and really just served as a backup, if needed.

It’s hard, at this point, to see Kroft re-signing in Buffalo.

Reggie Gilliam signed with the team as an undrafted free agent. He was originally listed as a fullback, but able to play multiple positions. A couple of weeks into training camp, the team moved him to tight end and completely eliminated any fullbacks on the roster whatsoever.

He dressed for every game, until an injury held him out of the last couple in the regular season. Gilliam also became one of the team’s core special teams players. He rarely played on offense, with only 77 total snaps on the season. However, one of his only two catches did result in a touchdown, Week 2 against the Miami Dolphins in South Florida.

Gilliam the kind of player teams love having on their roster, but certainly is no lock to make it again next year, either.

Lee Smith is like Jason from the “Friday the 13th” movies. Every time people try to kill him off, he just keeps coming back.

He brings something the Bills don’t have at tight end - a true blocking presence to help in the run game. With them electing not to have a fullback on the roster, it makes Smith even more valuable. With that said, Smith only dressed for 10 games last season, and that seemed to be on a game-to-game plan basis.

Smith is under contract for the 2021 season, but he’s 33-years-old and the team can save over $2.2 million on the salary cap by releasing him.

I’ve always liked both Nate Becker and Tommy Sweeney, but neither really possess any exceptional traits to think that they can make a huge difference or upgrade at the position. They both work really hard and can maybe be relied on for base-level production and play if called upon.

Becker spent the year on the practice squad for a second-straight season, signing a reserve/future deal when the season ended. However, he’s never caught a pass in an NFL game. His first NFL action came Week 17 this season when he was elevated from the practice squad for the contest.

Sweeney had a lost year from the jump, being placed on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list with a foot injury when training camp began. Then, in late October he was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list by the team. Shortly after, he was diagnosed with myocarditis, a heart condition developed as a result of having the virus. That forced him to be placed back on the reserve/COVID-19 list in late November, shutting his season down, with questions about his career going forward.

Hopefully Sweeney will be healthy, able to resume his career, and be back at training camp. He’s under contract with the team for two more seasons.


2021 State of the Bills:
- Running backs

Follow me on Twitter: @SalSports

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