AFC East offenses, like the rest of the NFL, are getting bigger and more athletic at the tight end position. Some like to say that the position itself is transforming. Some others have already begun dreaming for a big, fast tight end that, in Buddy Nix’s words, can “catch the ball he’s covered.”
On defense, the Bills faced the task of containing Greg Olsen, Jordan Cameron, the duo of Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham, Charles Clay, Jimmy Graham, Heath Miller, and Tony Gonzalez. On top of those solid tight ends, the Bills dodged Rob Gronkowski twice. Buffalo faced five of the top receiving tight ends in 2013.
On the season, Buffalo allowed 58 completions on 92 attempts for 609 yards and six touchdowns to tight ends in 2013. When covering tight ends, no Buffalo defender was covered more than Aaron Williams (23 passes). Despite the high number of targets, Williams allowed just twelve catches for 112 yards and a touchdown.
Da’Norris Searcy, who saw a growing number of snaps in a hybrid safety/linebacker position later in the season, was the main coverage man on tight ends at the beginning of the season. But that role slowly became Williams’. Starting in New Orleans, Williams’ targets when defending a tight end rapidly increased. The graph below shows the cumulative number of targets when defending a tight end as the season progressed.
Once Williams was injured at the end of the season, the others saw slight upticks (except Lawson), as the Bills needed to fill the hole the converted safety left. They filled in admirably, as opposing tight ends caught just 48% of the passes thrown their way for 96 yards after Williams was out of the lineup due to injury (the last two games as well as the plays after Williams was injured in the Baltimore and Jacksonville games).
Offensively, Scott Chandler had the second-most receiving yards in a season as a Buffalo Bill (the most post-merger). That’s kind of a big deal. His 655 receiving yards led the team.
Since the merger in 1970, 113 different tight ends have gained 600 or more receiving yards in a season for a total of 287 seasons. As previously mentioned, tight ends are getting more and more receiving yards. Seventeen tight ends had 600 or more receiving yards in 2011 (the highest since the merger), and thirteen hit that mark this season. It’s a result of a new wrinkle in the pass-dominated NFL.
Does Buffalo need another tight end? Should they draft a converted basketball player a la Jimmy Graham? Should they just sign Jimmy Graham, who is set to be a free agent this year??
104 tight ends recorded at least one reception in 2013. The average listed height of those players is 76.5 inches. The average height for tight ends with 500 or more yards (twenty players) is also 76.5 yards. So it seems that being big isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for being a receiving threat as a tight end, it’s just a prerequisite for being a tight end.
With all of that said, the Bills may choose to try to upgrade the tight end position this offseason. I’m on record for my opinion that Scott Chandler has been a solid player in that position. He’s big (although maybe not as athletic as a converted basketball player) and has been productive.
The Bills made nice strides this season as they kept up with the growing tight end trend both offensively and defensively. A healthy secondary will allow Aaron Williams to spend more time shutting down opposing tight ends. We have four months to debate Scott Chandler. Offseason fun!