CAPACCIO: Is No. 9 too high for the Bills to draft a tight end?

The Bills may be faced with the decision later this month

Sal Capaccio
April 10, 2019 - 2:34 pm

The Buffalo Bills will most likely be looking to add to their tight end position again at some point this offseason, and probably on draft weekend. It’s even assumed by many that the team will select a tight end fairly high in the draft, adding another weapon for quarterback Josh Allen in an offseason in which they’ve already spent plenty of resources already doing that.  

The team released Charles Clay earlier this year, then signed former Cincinnati Bengals tight ends Tyler Kroft and Jake Fisher. Kroft is a good all-around tight end, used both as a blocker and pass catcher in Cincinnati, but he’s not overwhelming in any particular area. Fisher is a converted offensive tackle, and will mainly be a blocking tight end. The only other tight end on the roster is Jason Croom, who is a former college wide receiver who can be a nice mismatch in the passing game when called upon. However, he’s still refining his game as a blocker.

A tight end who is a reliable target and true threat as a receiver is a huge boost for any young quarterback. Even Bills head coach Sean McDermott acknowledged as much while at the NFL owners meetings recently in Phoenix, Arizona when he talked about how important former Philadelphia Eagles tight end Chad Lewis was to Donovan McNabb’s development when McDermott was on staff in the early 2000’s.  

“Not a celebrated player,” he said of Lewis, “but I remember time after time, third down, 2nd-and-10, we’re getting back to 3rd-and-5, red zone. So at an early age, I feel like that I learned how important that tight end position is to a quarterback, and in particular to a young quarterback. It becomes a security blanket.”

Bills tight ends last year, as a group, only caught 55 passes for 520 yards. Croom scored the only touchdown for the entire group. They clearly need more production from the spot, and as McDermott pointed out, someone who Allen can look to to make a key grab on third down, or be that security blanket when others are covered.

The two best tight ends in this year’s draft class are both from Iowa. T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant. Both are considered elite-level prospects who many have being selected near the top-10 of the draft. The Bills hold the No. 9 overall selection. There’s a lot of debate on which one of the two is better and why, and you can talk yourself in circles trying to figure that out, but the question for the Bills is, “is ninth overall too high to draft a tight end?”

The Bills might love one of these players, or both, and think he’d be a terrific addition to their offense, especially being able to grow with Allen. By the time they pick, one of them may already be off the board. However, there’s a good chance one or both will be sitting there, leaving McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane to have to decide if the position is worthy enough for such a premium selection.

It wouldn’t be unprecedented for the Bills, or any team, to take a tight end within the top-nine picks, but it is uncommon. Since the AFL/NFL merger, 52 tight ends have been selected in the first round of the draft. Only 11 of them were taken at pick No. 9 or higher. The last to go that high was Vernon Davis, taken by the San Francisco 49ers with the sixth pick in 2006. Davis is still active and has had an excellent career with the 49ers, Denver Broncos, and Washington Redskins, totaling over 7,400 yards receiving. Even with those numbers, many believe Davis never lived up to the lofty expectations that came along with being selected that high. He didn’t break 900 receiving yards until his fourth year in the league, never had a 1,000-yard season, and caught our 60 balls only twice in 13 years.

In 1973, the Bills used the seventh overall pick on Paul Seymour, who was drafted as an offensive lineman but converted to a tight end his rookie season. He played just five seasons, catching just 62 passes for 818 yards. (Side note: Thanks to emailer Robert for the info re: Seymour originally being drafted as an offensive lineman to help block for O.J. Simpson).

The last time the Bills were scheduled to pick ninth leading up to the draft, they were also being linked to a tight end. In 2014, many believed they would select North Carolina’s Eric Ebron. Instead, the Bills traded up to the fourth spot and drafted Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins. Watkins is now on his third team. Ebron was taken 10th overall by the Detroit Lions. He never lived up to expectations there, but had his best season as a pro last year after signing with the Indianapolis Colts as a free agent, catching 66 passes for 750 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Of those 11 tight ends selected ninth or higher, only two have come in the last 22 years, Davis and Kellen Winslow, Jr., also selected sixth overall by the Cleveland Browns in 2004. The majority of tight ends taken that high were prior to 1980 when the game was played much differently, and teams used those kind of picks on all-around tight ends who were just as important as blockers as they were receivers. 

Things have changed.  

If a team is going to invest that kind of capital on that position, it needs to be for a legitimate impact-making threat in the passing game. Of course being able to block will also be important so that tight end can line up on or off the line and create mismatches, but production as a receiver will be most important. Recent history shows the majority of those tight ends in today’s league can be found throughout the draft.

Here are the top receiving leaders, as far as yards, for tight ends last year, and how they were acquired by their respective teams:

  1. George Kittle (49ers) - Drafted fifth round
  2. Travis Kelce (Chiefs) - Drafted third round
  3. Zach Ertz (Eagles) - Drafted second round
  4. Jared Cook (Raiders) - Drafted third round
  5. Eric Ebron (Colts) - Drafted first round; 10th overall 

Rob Gronkowski, widely considered the best tight end in the NFL over the past 10 years, was a second round pick by the New England Patriots. Antonio Gates, most likely a future Hall of Famer, was a college basketball player who went undrafted and then signed by the, then, San Diego Chargers. Jason Witten, who has un-retired to once again play for the Dallas Cowboys, was drafted in the third round. 

The idea of inserting Hockenson or Fant into the Bills’ offense is certainly appealing. There’s no questioning whether either of them would help Allen and the offense. Either would. The real question is about positional value. Is it worth it to draft one of them at No. 9 overall?


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