The Buffalo Bills’ depth at tight end took another hit on Sunday, when likely opening day starter, Scott Chandler, left practice early with a groin injury.
Chandler never returned to the field. The Bills are already without Tony Moeaki who suffered a hamstring injury two days earlier, an injury that is expected to cause him to miss a significant amount of time according to head coach Doug Marrone.
Chris Gragg also has not participated in team drills since being taken off the field several days ago with heat-related symptoms. Those three made up the top of the Bills’ depth chart at tight end and Chandler was the Bills’ leading receiver last season, having caught 53 passes for 655 yards and two touchdowns.
While that’s not likely to happen again with rookie Sammy Watkins joining the fray and the continued progression of second year receiver Robert Woods, if Chandler does miss a substantial amount of time it certainly puts a crimp in the Bills’ offense.
It’s not surprising that Moeaki is out with yet another injury. In the four years since he entered the league, Moeaki has somehow managed to miss two complete seasons due to various injuries.
The Bills were hoping he could return to the earlier production he exhibited – when healthy – with the Kansas City Chiefs in which he recorded 80 receptions for 1,009 yards and four touchdowns over the course of the 2010 and 2012 seasons.
It is looking increasingly like Moeaki cannot stay on the field long enough to make a difference to this team’s offense. Gragg should be back to full participation soon, but again the Bills are relying on a player with a limited track record in the league at a position that is becoming increasingly important as more teams move to a spread type offense.
Gragg played in just nine games in his rookie season last year but only had receptions in just two of them, accounting for five catches for 53 yards and one touchdown last season. If Chandler and Moeaki are out for a significant amount of time Gragg becomes the Bills’ best tight end option by default with only Lee Smith left standing as well.
Smith is primarily a blocking tight end – in three seasons with Buffalo he has 13 receptions for 102 yards and two touchdowns. Smith was only on the field for 37 percent of the Bills’ offensive snaps last year and functions more as an extension of the offensive line, necessary to create space for the Bills’ dynamic duo of running backs, Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller, and not as an actual pass catcher.
The Bills did sign Dominique Jones after Moeaki went down, but at 270 pounds, is built more like a fullback and in his two seasons with the Indianapolis Colts he has recorded just three more receptions than this writer for a total of 42 yards.
Needless to say the tight end position is in a state of flux and a bit tenuous now in Buffalo.
Even armed with the history of Chandler, Moeaki, Gragg, and Smith, the Bills still failed to improve their roster at tight end, instead choosing to stand pat and bring back Chandler at a reduced deal while hoping that Moeaki would stay healthy and display some of the production he has managed to have when he does set foot on the field – a foolish hope as it turns out.
They are still high on Gragg but in a league where the tight end role has been redefined in recent years and the best teams in the league are prioritizing the position the Bills’ seemingly ignored it.
It is not a coincidence that Denver (Julius Thomas), New England (Rob Gronkowski), San Francisco (Vernon Davis) and New Orleans (Jimmy Graham) have some of the most explosive offenses in the league.
Because their size makes them too large for a defensive back to handle on their own and they are often more athletic than your typical linebacker these tight ends are all reliable red-zone threats for their respective teams.
Though Chandler proved to be that in 2012, he demonstrated little evidence of that key ability last season, dropping several balls in the end zone and failing to offer the red zone security blanket that rookie quarterback EJ Manuel could have used.
So even their top tight end – now injured – isn’t up to snuff with the majority of the league.
The Bills had an opportunity to address their need as they were rumored to be serious contenders for the top pass catching tight end in this year’s draft, Eric Ebron out of the University of North Carolina, before ultimately making the decision to trade up and select Watkins.
Ebron has the speed and athleticism that the Bills were seeking but the choice was made to go all in on Watkins and with the way he has looked thus far few could blame them. But management failed to go after other talented tight ends such as Jace Amaro, among others in the draft, and the free agent market for tight ends was relatively slim.
Make no mistake, the Bills have various offensive weapons for Manuel, now entering a critical year in his development, to rely on from Watkins, Spiller, Jackson, Woods to Bryce Brown and second year receiver Marquise Goodwin.
But more than one reliable, athletic pass-catching tight end is a necessity in today’s NFL and on that front, the Bills are now a step behind.
For current news, entertainment, sports, politics and more please follow us at @TheInscriberMag and like us on Facebook: The Inscriber : Digital Magazine