Bills should make Tight End a priority in 2021

Tennessee Titans tight end Jonnu Smith (81) plays against the Buffalo Bills in the first half of an NFL football game Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

Written by Greg Boucher

While GMs around the league prepare to trim the fat from their books and free up cap space the hopes for fans all around the league is that many household names will become available in the weeks and months to come. While we anxiously await the cap axe to drop on some of them, we cannot help but speculate as to which marquee players will be made available. The rumor mill has been churning overtime as of late, Preston Smith, Lamarcus Joyner, Jurrell Casey, Kyle Fuller, Von Miller, Anthony Barr, and Tyron Smith are just a few of the big names with even bigger contracts that could possibly be released this offseason. One could reasonably make an argument for any of them to be brought into Buffalo, while there is no doubt that any of the aforementioned players would make our team significantly better in 2021, the real question is are any of them exactly what Josh Allen needs to propel this passing attack over the Kansas City Chiefs or any other newcomers seeking to claim the AFC throne?

The Bills offense has experienced a massive transformation under the McDermott/ Beane regime, they drafted Josh Allen their franchise QB, they made the blockbuster trade that brought in Stephon Diggs from Minnesota, they signed Beasley and Brown previously before drafting Gabriel Davis, they tinkered with the offensive line and drafted a tandem of talented running backs providing O.C. Brian Dabol plenty of weaponry to unleash on opponents. What was once a horror show of mediocrity and epic struggles, has become one of the more exciting shows on turf. Watching Josh Allen sling the ball all over the field and light up scoreboards in route to a record setting year has been an absolute pleasure, especially for those of us who suffered through the horrid QB play that has plagued this team for nearly two decades. For all of the great things we witnessed from this offense in 2020 something has been glaringly absent from this dynamic passing attack, if a tight end is a young quarterback’s best friend than consider Allen, the Mac without the cheese. So, one has to wonder what damage could Josh Allen and this high-flying offense do in 2021 with the addition of a dynamic playmaking tight end?

I can hear some of the Buffalo faithful screaming Dawson Knox’s name now, and I won’t completely discount him, there are some likeable components to his game. I understand he is a serviceable TE, with some upside athleticism who is still developing but many, myself included feel he will never become an elite TE in this league and be the surefire piece needed to complete this offense. After Beane traded up to take him in the 4th round of the 2019 draft Knox has had an underwhelming start to his career. Those who followed him understood coming out of college, he was going to be raw and would need some major refinement having played QB in high school before making the transition to tight end where he was wildly underused at Ole Miss, but we are growing impatient heading into year three and waiting another year may be a risk we cannot afford to take. There is no doubt that Brandon Beane has done an excellent job of problem solving since he has arrived in 2018. The franchise needed a quarterback, he gave us Josh Allen and when Allen needed capable WRs to throw to he went out and got Brown and Beasley then topped that off with Stephon Diggs. When the running back room needed an injection of youth, he went out and drafted Singletary and Moss. When the offensive line needed stability in the wake of Eric Woods retirement, he went out and got Mitch Morse. The only real problem he has yet to solve on the offensive side of the ball in his short tenure has been the addition of a dynamic tight end. This year Beane will have his toughest workload to date, up against an airtight cap, looming free agents and position groups desperate for repair so finding a premier tight end on the market may not be in the cards this off season, but as we have come to learn in Buffalo you must “trust the process.” Never bet against Beane.

The Gold Medal: Hunter Henry

Creator: Jeffrey T. Barnes | Credit: AP

If Beane is going to go all in and give Allen the best available tight end in this free agent class, then look no further than Henry. When healthy he is one of the leagues premiere tight ends, assembling 2,322 yards on 196 grabs and 21 scores in his 4 NFL seasons, unfortunately health has been an issue for Henry having missed significant time during his career including the entire 2018 season. However, his blend of size and speed are a nightmare for defenses to match up against, at 6’5/ 250lbs he can outrun most linebackers and out muscle most defensive backs. His understanding of zone coverages and where to find the windows make him a seemingly always open target especially when you factor in his reliability in traffic, ranking 11th in the NFL in contested catches in 2020. Henry would add to an already impressive passing attack, upgrading not only to the position but to the offense as a whole. Currently Henry’s value projects somewhere in the $12M per year range which would be extremely rich for the Bills blood but if Beane wants to win now and continue the monumental development of Josh Allen he will find a way to appropriate the funds and make the deal for Henry.

The Silver Medal: Jonnu Smith

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Smith has been incredibly dependable in his time in Tennessee, compiling 1300 yards receiving and 16 TDs in his 4 seasons while dealing with changes in quarterback and an offense that revolves primarily around the running of Derick Henry. Smith is coming off his best season to date, 41/ 448/ 8 with a long of 63, earning a 75.2 PFF grade. What is most attractive about his production and would make him an intriguing addition to this offense is his Red Zone success, he ranked 5th in targets and finished with an 85.7 contested catch rate. Aside from Smith’s ability to catch in tight spaces is his ability to turn small gains into big plays, something we saw little of from Knox. Smith has exceptional speed (4.62) and athleticism for the position, he moves more like a receiver with the ball in his hand than a lumbering tight end, and with a full head of steam he is extremely difficult for a defensive back to take down. Smith amassed a whopping 167 yards after the catch and an even more impressive 238 yards after contact. Smith may not have the freakish mismatch size like some of the other available tight ends, but his ability and production speak for itself. Currently Smith’s market value is trending at about $8M per, which is certainly a doable figure for Beane considering the poor contracts he still has yet to shed from the books.

Wheeling and Dealing: Zach Ertz/ Philadelphia Eagles

Creator: Mitchell Leff | Credit: Getty Images

The former 2nd round pick in the 2013 NFL draft is still one of the better tight ends in the league. He still has the size, the mobility, the catch radius and the exceptional hands that helped him amass over 561 receptions, 6,078 yards and 36 TD’s in his career. This coming season he is set to be a $12.4M cap hit and with the Eagles array of heavy contracts looming like a storm cloud they are almost certain to shed some of that money and with TE Dallas Goedert still under a more manageable contract Ertz will be a prime cut candidate. The pass catcher has been rumored to be a deal sweetener for a possible Wentz trade, so management is definitely interested in moving the tight end. The Bills are currently in possession of two 5th round picks so it would not be unimaginable for the Eagles to let him go for one of the late round picks to free themselves of his contract saying they just let a franchise QB for a 3rd pick. Once obtained Beane could renegotiate his contract and make his deal more team friendly by turning some of the money into bonuses and back filling it.

David Njoku/ Cleveland Browns

CLEVELAND, OH – DECEMBER 8, 2019: Tight end David Njoku #85 of the Cleveland Browns on the field prior to a game against the Cincinnati Bengals on December 8, 2019 at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland won 27-19. (Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)

Njoku was reported to have requested a trade back in July of 2020 later rescinding his request and since then there hasn’t been much talk about the talented tight end being available but one has to assume, he is not off limits. The Browns shocked many when they signed Austin Hooper to a massive 4-year $44M contract last year and since doing so he has been the feature tight end in the offense making the former 1st Rd pick Njoku expendable. He is a freakish talent, 6 foot 4 with pterodactyl like wingspan and possess a lot of match up problems for defenses especially when utilized correctly, something one could argue is not happening in Cleveland currently. Prior to his injury in 2019 Njoku was extremely productive compiling 88 receptions for 1000+ yards and 8 scores while working through the growing pains of a transitioning offense. Though he is similar to Knox in a lot of ways Njoku’s ability to transform his athleticism and size into production would make him an instant upgrade. The Browns are sitting on a ton of cap space heading into 2021 so moving Njoku will not be a priority considering he is only a $6M cap hit this season but the Browns may be interested in adding a reliable vertical threat to their offense in exchange, que WR John Brown. Beane will more than likely be looking to move the veteran WR as he begins to clear money from his books, perhaps a player-for-player deal can be struck, it would not be the first time these franchises met on a deal in recent years.

The Draft: Pat Freiermuth/ Penn State

Creator: Kevin Jairaj | Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Pitts is by far the cream of this college crop and baring any other worldly events will be long gone when the Bills are on the clock at 30. My #2 rated tight end in a relatively weak class is Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth, the player some are labeling “Baby Gronk” and for right reason. He is a big (6’5/260lbs), physical 3-down tight end with extremely strong hands and plus athleticism. Prior to a Covid shortened season Freiermuth was one of the most dominant tight ends in the country in 2018/19: 69 receptions for 875 yards and 15 touchdowns. His physical presence, his ability to block and his reliable hands will make him a borderline 1st Rd pick in April, the big question is does Beane value the need enough to draft him at 30? If he passes on him in the first round its certain Freiermuth will not be on the board when they come back up at the end of the 2nd Rd.

Brevin Jordan/ Miami

Creator: Sam Navarro | Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Jordan is my #3 rated TE and is coming of an absolute monster 2020 despite only playing 8 games, he managed to catch 38 balls, rack up 576 yards and score 7 TDs. While Jordan is primarily a receiving tight end and is a limited in line blocker, his athleticism provides an offense with a tremendous amount of versatility. Aside from being a clever route runner who crates separation and finds the windows to sit in, he is a very dangerous run-after-the-catch player. At Miami he was used in a variety of ways, flexed out in line and motioned through the backfield where he caught a bunch of short screen passes and was able to parlay them into bigger gains. Jordan is a fall off from Freiermuth, lacking the size and physicality of him but he could inject another big play option into this already potent Bills offense. I wouldn’t look for Beane to target Jordan in the first but he would make a lot of sense on day two, as early as the third round.

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