Kroft’s injury keeps Bills uncertain at TE position

TORONTO — The Buffalo Bills entered the NFL offseason with one major goal: upgrade everything around Josh Allen in 2019. That seems reasonable to do for a team that found a potential franchise quarterback but was below average in the offensive line and receiving corps last year.

Buffalo averaged just 16.8 points per game in 2018, third worst in the NFL, which evidently has something to do with the wide receivers. After all, Zay Jones led the franchise in catches, receiving yards, and touchdowns with just 56, 652, and seven, respectively. Besides Jones, no player contributed with more than 35 catches or three TD receptions for the Bills. 

Jones will now play alongside veterans Cole Beasley and John Brown, both signed in free agency. He’ll also share targets with the Bills’ new tight ends. Which one of them has yet to be decided, however.

That’s because an already-uncertain position in Buffalo just received bad news in the first day of OTAs. 

Tyler Kroft, who signed a three-year, $18.75 million contract with the Bills this offseason and was expected to be the team’s No. 1 tight end in 2019, broke his foot and has been ruled out for at least three months. This is the same foot injury that limited Kroft to just five games (and zero touchdown) with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2018. Kroft is expected to return right on time for the regular season. 

While having the tight end for Week 1 against the New York Jets is what the Bills hope for, the injury means that Kroft will probably miss all the Training Camp activities with his new teammates. That’s a big deal considering that Buffalo may have seven different starters on offence and a second-year quarterback under center this season.

Who will step up as a tight end for the Bills, especially after Kroft’s injury, is uncertain at this point, and is a big storyline for the 2019 Training Camp. 

Besides Kroft, Buffalo signed Lee Smith (3-yr./$9 MM) in free agency and drafted Dawson Knox (96th overall pick) and Tommy Sweeney (228th). 

From a blocking stand point, the Bills might have all they need in these players, but the offensive production is a concern once again.  

Smith is known for his blocking ability, despite scoring a career-high three TDs in 2018 with the Oakland Raiders, and he has yet to surpass 80 receiving yards in a season. 

The draft class might not have the answer either.

Knox went through his entire college career at Ole Miss without scoring a touchdown. Sweeney, who showed great receiving skills in Boston College, is a long-term project coming out of the seventh round. 

The fact that a seventh-round TE looks the most talented receiving tight end in the roster right now (with Kroft injured) shows that the Bills aren’t ready for a plan B. Even plan A may be in jeopardy, considering Kroft’s history in the NFL.

Of course, all of this has to do with awful production last season. 

Buffalo had one of the league’s worst tight end corps in Charles Clay, Jason Croom, and Logan Thomas in 2018. They had 55 catches, 520 yards, and one touchdown. Together. 

Individually speaking, neither one of them surpassed 22 total receptions (Croom led the team with 22). Their highest reception-per-game average was 1.6 (Clay) and the Bills’ longest play by a tight end was a 26-yard reception by Croom.

Croom, who signed with the team as an undrafted free agent in 2017, could be a candidate of success for the Bills’ tight end corps as he’s still in the roster, while Clay and Thomas are gone after signing deals elsewhere in free agency.  

The Bills’ recent uncertainties at TE are a result of a failed process that started in 2015. 

Between 2010 and 2014, Buffalo had Scott Chandler as its No. 1 tight end and he became one of the franchise’s most productive TEs ever. After his departure, Charles Clay received a 5-year, $38 million contract in 2015. 

The former sixth-round pick had one great season with the Miami Dolphins when he totalled 69 receptions, 759 yards, and six touchdowns in 2013. One year later, while still in Miami, Clay regressed to 58-605-3 — and that was his last season in Florida before moving to Buffalo.

Clay’s contract has been proved to be a mistake, but the Bills also should be questioned about their decision to not draft a single tight end between 2016 and 2018. In that span, names such as George Kittle, Austin Hooper, Chris Herndon, all heard their names called in the third round or later. Either one of them would surely be the main starter for Buffalo at the position today.

The fact that the Bills signed two tight ends in free agency, plus drafted two other names for the position, shows how desperately they need a TE. It’s the No. 1 tight end who should be one of Allen’s major targets during the 2019 season. 

In an offseason with plenty of great decisions, Buffalo may have to pay the price for past year’s mistakes at the tight end position.

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