The tight end position has become an important tool for NFL offenses. For example, the New England Patriots found a gem in Rob Gronkowski in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft.
The Amherst native became a juggernaut for the Patriots. In ten seasons, Gronkowski recorded over 7800 yards and 79 touchdowns, the most by a tight end since entering the league in 2010.
Three Super Bowls later, Gronkowski has cemented his legacy and should be a first-ballot hall of famer once he retires. Bills fans wish they could say the same about Tyler Kroft.
Signing a three-year, $18.75 million contract in 2019, the Bills Mafia hoped that Kroft would be their best tight end threat since Pete Metzelaars in the 1990s.
But with disappointing numbers in 2019, Kroft has not been what the Bills had hoped he would be. Coming into the final year of a restructured contract, does Kroft need a strong 2020 campaign to stay in Orchard Park?
An Interesting Signing
Looking at the 2018 stats, Buffalo needed a new tight end target. At the end of the season, the tight end depth chart of Charles Clay, Jason Croom, and Logan Thomas logged only 517 total yards according to Pro Football Reference.
Putting it into perspective, Rob Gronkowski had 682 yards in only 13 games played in 2018. It is fair to say Buffalo needed a new face at tight end.
With Buffalo cutting Charles Clay before OTAs in February 2019, a roster spot was up for grabs. With a slim free agent class at the tight end position, Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane decided on Kroft.
For some Bills fans, the signing was a confusing one. A third-round pick by the Bengals in 2015, Kroft struggled in Cinncinati. In four years, the Rutgers product recorded only 661 yards and nine touchdowns for Cinncinati.
However, I understand why McDermott and Beane signed Kroft. The signing would hopefully give Josh Allen a fresh target to throw to. Although things did not turn out that way the Bills hoped.
2019: A Year of Missed Opportunities for Kroft
With Josh Allen officially handed the offensive keys, Kroft looked to gain more opportunities on the field. But two months into his contract, the 27- year-old broke his foot on the first day of OTAs.
This was a huge blow for Kroft, as the foot issues followed him from Cinncinati to Orchard Park. In 2018, Kroft only appeared in five games for the Bengals before a broken bone in his foot ended his season.
This is where the signing becomes cloudy to me. Why would you sign a guy who injured the same foot the season before? Maybe the Bills thought his foot was healed?
In any case, Kroft missed all of OTAs, preseason, and the first two games of the season. Yet, Kroft recovered in time to get ready for Buffalo’s week three matchup against his former team in the Bengals.
Well, the injury bug bit Kroft once again, as he tweaked his ankle during a Thursday practice. McDermott expressed his shared sympathy with Kroft.
“He’s worked extremely hard and the players see that,” McDermott said. “We just pray that he comes out okay from this. We’re going to support him.”
After missing weeks 3-5, Kroft finally showed up on the stat sheet in week eight, catching two passes for 32 yards in the Bills 31-13 loss to the Eagles. This looked to be step in the right direction for Kroft as he finally saw some action in Buffalo’s evolving offense.
Flash forward to the end of the season and things did not pan out like everyone wanted. Kroft reeled in only six catches for 71 yards and one touchdown.
Sure, his only touchdown in week 15 against the Steelers clinched Buffalo’s second playoff berth in three years. But the injuries held back Kroft’s chance for consistency on the field. Plus, a rookie was gaining the spotlight while Kroft was sidelined.
Dawson Knox: A Man on a Mission
With Kroft battling injuries, rookie Dawson Knox grabbed the tight end spotlight based on one play below:
I remember screaming “that’s a grown a** man” as loud as I could in my college dorm room when Knox rumbled for that 49-yard catch.
For a rookie, Knox stepped up to fill the void. The Ole Miss product reeled in 28 receptions for 388 yards and two touchdowns in 15 games for the Bills in 2019.
With 144 of the yards being after the catch, Knox is a vertical threat for the Bills in 2020.
This should be a cause for concern for Tyler Kroft. According to SharpFootballStats.com, the Bills ran a 1-1 personnel 70% of the time, which is one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers. And Knox (646 or 61%) had significantly more snaps on offense than Kroft (244 or 23%) according to Pro Football Reference.
Paired with Knox getting the bulk of first-team reps in training camp so far, Kroft may see more of the bench in 2020.
Let’s be clear: I am not saying Dawson Knox is going to rack up 1,000 yards this season. It’s going to be tough for him to get even 500 yards with the weapons Josh Allen already has in his arsenal (Diggs, Brown, Beasley, Singletary). But that means Kroft might not show up on the stat sheet either.
Does Kroft Deserve the Elusive Second Contract with the Bills?
Crunching the numbers, Tyler Kroft has not done enough to deserve a second contract in Orchard Park. But, Buffalo cannot afford to cut him for two reasons.
First, Buffalo gains very little if they cut Kroft. According to Spotrac, Buffalo will have to absorb $5 million in dead cap while saving only $412,500 if they release Kroft. Considering that there are questions about the league wide cap next season, Buffalo cannot afford to absorb any more dead cap.
In fact, Buffalo already saved money by restructuring Kroft’s contract. In March, the team shaved $1.6 million off his contract while guaranteeing him $3.4 million in 2020. The deal also voids Kroft’s original $6.05 million that he was due to receive in 2021.
The second reason is due to Buffalo’s slim tight end stable. Behind Kroft and Knox, Buffalo does not have proven offensive threats.
Lee Smith is mostly a blocking tight end who goes out for 1-2 yard passes. Jason Croom is coming back from a hamstring injury that cost him the entire 2019 season. Reggie Gilliam and Nate Becker have not seen any time on the field. And Tommy Sweeney is currently on the PUP list with a foot injury.
If Knox struggles out of the gate, Kroft may jump in and take some reps. But it is too early to predict that. Also, no preseason games hurts Kroft as he cannot get the official game experience against an opponent other than his defensive teammates.
Judgement: Breakout Season or Bust for Kroft
Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane did not just restructure Kroft’s contract to save some money. I feel like they did it to show Kroft that he needs to step up his game in order to receive another contract.
Buffalo still has to pay out some important contracts with Tre’Davious White, Matt Milano, and Josh Allen. And with fantasy sites such as fantasypros.com projecting that Kroft will record 155 yards and two touchdowns, it may be best for Buffalo to steer clear of Kroft come 2021.
Do you think Tyler Kroft will be a Buffalo Bill in 2021? Let me know your thoughts by connecting with me on twitter @BenBlakely18.