(WKBW) — As the sting from the end of the 2018 season starts to lessen for the Buffalo Bills, the reality of the offseason begins for the front office and coaching staff. And in doing so, they're putting together a strategy of how to navigate the offseason -- from free agency to the 2019 NFL Draft.
As the weeks pass by teams, get closer and closer to the annual offseason deadlines. In preparation, 7ABC will take an in-depth look at the current roster while evaluating what happened in 2018, what it could tell us as to the team's plans for 2019, and some author recommendations of how to march forward. The grades attached to each player is the result of an in-depth film study done by 7ABC every week through the 2018 season.
Up next, a position that seems destined to have plenty of turnover before the start of 2019, tight end:
2018 In Review
*In order of 2018 grade with 200 snaps or more
2018 Season GPA: 2.49 (Snap Count: 388)
2019 Contract Status: $570,000 cap hit, signed through 2019 and becomes an ERFA in 2020 offseason.
Age: 24 (2/28/1994)
- It was quite the story for Jason Croom over the past two years. Formerly an undrafted rookie that the Bills released ahead of the 2017 season, before ultimately bringing him back to the practice squad later in the year. Then, in 2018, he impressed the coaching staff straight away in the spring and summer, to the point that he moved up the depth chart enough to be a lock for the 53-man roster. Croom is a developing player that is at his best when he can chip into the passing game. While his wide open touchdown against Minnesota is what many will remember, it was his clutch catch late in the fourth quarter to help clinch the win over Detroit that helped earn him even more time on the field ahead starter Charles Clay. The Bills were happy to get Croom the reps in 2018 because they wanted to see how far he has come along in his career so far, especially when they have to make plenty of decisions in the upcoming offseason. While a solid option in the passing game, Croom needs to take much better care of the ball -- after he fumbled twice in 22 total receptions on the season. On top of ball security, Croom still has a lot more learning to do when it comes to blocking because teams took advantage of him on plenty of occasions this season. Still, as a young player that provides depth and can be a starter in a pinch, the Bills should hang on to Croom and continue to develop him to see if the light goes on for him to become an all-around tight end. At this point, he's probably best served to be a role player that can also play special teams.
2018 Season GPA: 2.42 (Snap Count: 504)
2019 Contract Status: $9 million cap hit, signed through 2019
Age: 29 (2/13/1989)
- The contract of Charles Clay has always brought on his share of detractors -- sometimes unjustly -- but he was still able to produce with the chances he got in past seasons. In a bit of a prove-it year in 2018 to the front office and coaching staff, Clay's production and value to the team fell off a cliff. Even in 2017, Clay was a productive-enough entity to the team that he was an above average starter, garnering a 2.81 GPA. However, with a mostly healthy season in 2018, his GPA sunk to a 2.42, which is nothing more than a replacement-level player. And for someone that is about to earn as much as he is in 2019, combined with the fact that he couldn't get it going with the open-it-up style of Josh Allen, puts his future with the Bills very much in doubt. Drops and poor blocking plagued him in 2018, culminating his fall from a once high standing in the form of the Bills making him a healthy scratch in Week 16. His future with the team appears ominous, at best.
2018 Season GPA: 2.32 (Snap Count: 284)
2019 Contract Status: Unrestricted free agent
Age: 27 (7/1/1991)
- Sometimes project players make the progress teams always dreamed of to become an impact player -- or at the very least, a starter. Other times, the player doesn't make the jump and the time invested in developing that player never comes to fruition. It's a battle teams face on a yearly basis. Logan Thomas was once one of those project types, and although he hasn't become the player the team hoped for with that blend of size and speed, Thomas has undoubtedly improved in two distinct areas to likely keep him in the conversation for jobs moving forward. From where he started, Thomas has come leaps and bounds as a blocker -- but still has his fair share of whiffs that negatively impact a play. He also has turned himself into a core special teams player, a facet to his game that is essential for a depth tight end. Despite his low grade on the offensive side of the ball, I wouldn't at all be surprised to see the Bills try to re-sign Thomas -- not as a lock to the make the roster, but as a depth and special teams player in the event that they aren't able to add all the pieces they might want to this offseason. By many accounts, he's a good teammate, a solid presence in the locker room, and an intelligent player that takes to coaching well.
*Khari Lee took 46 snaps before the Bills released him in Week Five.
Recommendations for 2019 offseason
1) Release Charles Clay and start over at tight end
- Once the playoffs wrap up, and the offseason becomes the total focus of the NFL, the Bills will see their first logical opportunity to get out from the encumbering contract given to Charles Clay. Clay's cap number in 2019 -- the final year of his contract with the team -- carries a figure of $9 million. And for the first time since the beginning of that contract, the Bills would be able to release him and save money on their cap, with a potential savings of $4.5 million on the horizon. Now, the Bills aren't in bad shape with the salary cap so moving on from Clay isn't mandatory -- but the current front office didn't sign him, he showed little to no chemistry with Josh Allen, and they can't have such low production with that salary attributed to it. Above all else, the Bills need to hit the reset button with their starter at tight end, and this offseason is a prime opportunity to do so.
2) Sign a free agent with some degree of upside
- Should the Bills walk away from Charles Clay, that would create a full-blown starting competition in the spring and summer between Jason Croom and whomever else the Bills add through the offseason. With all the cap room that they have, they can afford to sign a free agent tight end that may have underperformed during his first stint but is still young enough with a good skill-set to warrant taking a low-risk chance on in 2019 at least. That way, the Bills would have an experienced tight end to battle Jason Croom for the right to be a starter next season, and there wouldn't have to be an outright reliance on drafting a player at the position -- or if they do draft one, putting that player on the field immediately. Last week, I mentioned former second-round pick and Baltimore tight end Maxx Williams as someone that could be in the realm of what the Bills look for in free agency. It doesn't necessarily have to be him, but a player in that same mold as Williams is something that I believe will be attractive to the Bills on the free agent market.
3) Draft a tight end
- The Bills have ten total selections in the 2019 NFL Draft, and even though there are so many needs on the roster going into the offseason, having a young tight end to mold on the team is one that I don't think the Bills should stay away from. As long as they don't ignore the value of their board and one tight end with a similar grade to a prospect at a different position is available at the time of their pick, the Bills should make it happen at some point in the draft. Given how game-changing a great tight end can be, and with how important the position is to Brian Daboll's offense, I wouldn't rule out the Bills looking in that direction with any of their ten selections. The Bills haven't used any draft pick, let alone a pick in the first three rounds, on a tight end since 2015. In fact, in the last ten drafts, the Bills have only used a pick on a tight end three times out of 77 total picks -- an unthinkable 3.8-percent of their selections. And oh, by the way, all three of those -- Shawn Nelson, Chris Gragg, and Nick O'Leary -- were taken in the fourth round or later. With how important having a great tight end can be to a team in today's NFL, it's borderline criminal that this franchise hasn't tried harder to find a player at that position in the draft. Making matters worse, the Bills hadn't used a selection on a tight end in the top three rounds since 2005 when they brought in Kevin Everett in the third round. And for those wondering, the last time the Bills took a tight end in the second round was in 1994 for Lonnie Johnson, and in the first round, you'd have to go all the way back to Tony Hunter in 1983. It's time to draft and develop a legitimate tight end rather than trying to hodgepodge their way to production at a position that can help take an offense to the next level.
**All contract information aggregated from the Buffalo Bills media guide and Spotrac.com