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2017 Buffalo Bills All-22 in Review: Tight Ends

Posted: 5:46 PM, Feb 05, 2018
Updated: 2018-02-05 22:46:00Z

For the Buffalo Bills and now the rest of the NFL, the reality of the offseason has set in. Preparations by teams of how to attack the offseason, their own free agents, and late April’s draft are starting to take hold.

So as the next deadlines start to creep up, WKBW.com is taking a hard look at the roster and evaluating what happened in 2017, what could be on the horizon in 2018, and a recommendation for what to do moving forward. The grades you’ll see attached to the players are the result of film study of each and every week throughout the 2017 season for the Buffalo Bills.

Up next, we take a look at a position that really might not change much in 2018 — tight end:

2017 In Review
*In order of 2017 Grade

Charles Clay
2017 Season GPA: 2.81 (Snap Count: 614)
2018 Contract Status: $9 million cap hit, signed through 2019
Age: 28 (DOB: 2/13/1989)

- For Charles Clay, it was a season that originally started off well in an offense that was supremely tight end friendly and a quarterback that consistently looked his way, but then after an injury that forced him to miss multiple weeks, he faded into the background of the offense. Clay’s athleticism helped him in the early stages — especially with a breakout game in Atlanta during what was then considered an upset win. When he got back, that athletic edge he had was still there, but after being sidelined for a month, he didn’t come close to another big game until near the end of the season. He’s an above average tight end, but the trouble is, he’s paid for a higher level of play than just above average. There is the possibility that Clay could be targeted more with a different quarterback and have a higher impact, which the Bills may well have in 2018. Given his contract, though, 2017 wasn’t exactly the type of production people were expecting.

Nick O’Leary
2017 Season GPA: 2.77 (Snap Count: 595)
2018 Contract Status: Exclusive Rights Free Agent
Age: 25 (8/31/1992)

- After a humbling start to his NFL career, Nick O’Leary has done a fine job to carve out a niche for himself as a dependable second-string tight end that can help as both a receiver and as a blocker in a fairly big role with the team. And this season because of Clay’s injury, he also showed that he can step into top duties for a small amount of time. O’Leary took advantage of most of his opportunities in 2017, turning into a dependable option for Tyrod Taylor, and while he didn’t provide a lot of yards after the catch, he was able to read the defense well enough to find a soft spot and haul in the reception. The combination of skills made it so neither Logan Thomas or Khari Lee ever had a real shot of unseating O’Leary for his mid-level role in the Bills’ offense. Better yet for O’Leary, he proved himself to a second straight coaching staff — and one which is encouraging for his future.

Khari Lee
2017 Season GPA: 2.77 (Snap Count: 47)
2018 Contract Status: $705,000 cap hit, signed through 2018
Age: 26 (1/16/1992)

- Khari Lee had a very specific role for the Bills as a run blocking tight end that wasn’t active for every game that he was a member of the roster. Even when he was active, the Bills really only used him for a handful of plays on a given Sunday — and it was just to try and spring LeSean McCoy or one of the other runners forward. He’s a big-bodied tight end that isn’t the quickest, so when the passing attack was going to be a large part of the offense, he was deemed expendable on the active list on game days. He’s signed through 2018 so he’ll likely head to training camp and the preseason, but he’ll be a roster bubble player based on how the position shakes out in the summer — and if the Bills add to the position at all in the offseason.

Logan Thomas
2017 Season GPA: 2.65 (Snap Count: 164)
2018 Contract Status: Exclusive Rights Free Agent
Age: 26 (7/1/1991)

- With all the physical attributes you could want from a tight end (6-foot-6, 250-pounds), it was a challenging season for many reasons for Logan Thomas as the borderline third tight end on the Bills roster. From a personal perspective, it’s hard not to be sympathetic for what happened with his family right in the middle of the year, and he deserves a lot of credit for getting back to work so quickly after such a personal tragedy. Soon to be 27 years old heading into the upcoming season, there is still some game to work with for the Bills. As an exclusive rights free agent, it’s not a hard thing at all to retain Thomas in 2018 — all they have to do is issue him a tendered contract, and he’ll basically be forced to sign it. 

Those that did not have a snap in 2017 but are signed for 2018: Jason Croom, Keith Towbridge

Recommendations for 2018

1) For cap reasons, keep Charles Clay
- There is a lot of frustration from the fan base with Charles Clay — mainly due to his production as compared to the outrageously large contract he signed a few years back. He has, however, shown flashes of what he can be when he’s actually featured consistently — especially early in the season when he was fully healthy and not coming off knee surgery. The biggest reason why he should be back next year: his contract. His cap hit next year is $9 million, which is a large number given his lack in production, but in order to get rid of him, it would cost the team just as much against the cap to not have him on the roster in 2018. That’s right — it would cost the Bills the same $9 million in 2018 just to have him not there, and based on what’s happening to their salary cap already next season, there’s no reason to get noticeably weaker at the position with the same cap hit regardless if he’s in the building or he isn’t. They might as well get something out of the cap hit, rather than to let it be dead money just for the sake of making a move. In 2019, they’ll have options because Clay’s dead money hit is $4.5 million, which is also how much they would save on the cap if they cut him. In 2018 though, it makes sense just to keep him and have him play a role.

2) Tender Nick O’Leary
- As the season went on, it became more and more apparent that O’Leary had built himself a solid role within the Bills as a dependable player that can step into a bigger role in limited spots if asked to. For that reason, the decision on him as an exclusive rights free agent shouldn’t even be in question for the Bills. As long as they issue him a tender for 2018, he remains under their control for the upcoming season. The Bills could very well find someone else to supplant him as the second-string tight end on the team, but you could really do far worse than having him as third, or even second-string player at the position. This should be an easy decision.

3) Bring in an athletic, developmental tight end
- It doesn’t matter if it’s late in the draft, as a priority undrafted free agent, or to find a young free agent already in the league (that doesn’t count against the compensatory formula) that shows a little athletic upside — the Bills should add some additional depth and competition for roster spots two through four at tight end. They do still have Jason Croom, a converted wide receiver, who was signed to a reserve/futures contract following the conclusion of the season, but they need to add at least one other piece to compete than just him. With the success of athletic late round and undrafted athletic tight ends around the league in many instances and a situation where that player won’t have to step into any large role in 2018, means they should find a player to try to stash and groom through the upcoming year. Other than that, based on what they are with the salary cap and all of their other more pressing needs, the tight end position might not see much change heading into 2018.

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia