As we all know by now, the Buffalo Bills offense was as good as it has ever been in 2020. However, the tight ends still left something to be desired. Despite being one of the best passing offenses in the league last year, most of that production came from the Bills Wide Receivers and not the Tight Ends.
Depending on how you classify Reggie Gilliam’s position, the Buffalo Bills had four Tight Ends on the roster last year. Those four Tight Ends were Dawson Knox, Tyler Kroft, Lee Smith, and Gilliam. They converted 68 targets into 42 receptions for 458 receiving yards and nine touchdowns combined last year.
As a whole, the Buffalo Bills offense completed 410 of 596 pass attempts for 4,620 yards and 40 touchdowns. Therefore, the Tight Ends only accounted for 10% of completed passes, 9.9% of passing yards, but a whopping 22.5% of the passing touchdowns.
These numbers show how the 2020 Buffalo Bills utilized the Tight End position. They were either most productive in the red zone or were, perhaps, given more opportunities in the red zone. Either way, they only produced in spot moments throughout the 2020 season. It has us as fans wanting more from the position.
This begs the question, do the Bills utilize their Tight Ends less because of personnel or scheme. If the answer is “scheme”, then it would be unwise to over-invest in the position. Conversely, if it’s “personnel”, perhaps an upgrade at Tight End is needed for Brian Daboll’s offense to reach its greatest potential.
The Curious Case of Dawson Knox
Dawson Knox has to be one of the most difficult evaluations in recent Buffalo Bills memory. The former Quarterback transitioned to the Tight End position in college. He’s a big dude with upper-tier athleticism for the position. Something that can really be seen when he gets the ball in his hands. The issue is that he struggles to get the ball. Whether it’s his lack of opportunities or the lack of consistency, he has left something to be desired.
Although Knox had the most productive season of any Bills Tight End last year, that production also had some disappointments along the way. For instance, his catch percentage decreased from his rookie year into year two. In 2019, Knox caught 28 of his 50 targets (56%). In 2020, he caught just 24 of his 44 targets (54.5%). However, it should be noted that his drop numbers improved significantly last season. According to Pro Football Reference, Knox dropped just four passes on his 44 targets (9.1%) last season. That’s down from 10 drops on his 50 targets (20%) as a rookie.
With that being said, Knox only has two seasons under his belt and a very unorthodox 2020 season with all things considered. The Tight End position is often one that takes time to grow into. Those who produce early or develop quickly tend to be exceptions to the rule. Knox has certainly shown development, but he has also shown inconsistency. He’s currently slotted as the TE1 on this roster and has all the potential in the world to develop into a great player. However, how much is too much patience? I don’t think that time has come quite yet, but there are ways to improve while extending that patience.
Do the Buffalo Bills NEED Zach Ertz?
To answer the question in the header, the most important thing to do is distinguish the difference between “need” and “want” as it applies to Zach Ertz. The Buffalo Bills had a great offense that was predicated on passing last season. After bringing most key pieces back from last year’s roster, there aren’t many areas to improve on offense. However, the Interior Offensive Line and Tight End are two of the biggest areas of improvement relative to success from that position last year.
The Bills still have Dawson Knox and Reggie Gilliam, but lost Tyler Kroft and Lee Smith this offseason. To fill the void of those lost, the Buffalo Bills signed Jacob Hollister in free agency and Quintin Morris as an undrafted free agent. Additionally, Tommy Sweeney will be back this season after an unfortunate turn of events last year.
Throughout the offseason, we have heard rumblings of Zach Ertz to Buffalo. Then, within the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen those rumors regain traction. However, nothing has seemed to materialize. Meaning, there’s some sort of misbalance of value as the Bills and Eagles try to see eye-to-eye and make a trade.
As of conversations today, my understanding is that apprehensions with production & consistency at the #Bills tight end spot are still a topic of conversation in Buffalo. Something to keep an eye on, especially with folks still staking out Zach Ertz’s situation in Philly.— IG: JosinaAnderson (@JosinaAnderson) June 11, 2021
Yes, Zach Ertz is an immediate upgrade to the Bills Tight End position, but what is Brandon Beane willing to spend for that upgrade? According to Overthecap.com, Ertz has a cap hit of $12,721,500 in 2021 left on his contract. As of right now, the Buffalo Bills have a total of $11,107,252 in cap space. Therefore, the Bills are likely in negotiations to get the Eagles to take on some of that 2021 cap hit in order to make the trade. However, the Eagles would be foolish to accept a deal like that without trying to get as much back as possible.
If the Bills get Ertz, he is immediately the best Tight End on the roster. But does that mean that the Bills need to make the trade? Brandon Beane likely has a very specific price he’s willing to pay, and he’s going to stick to that price.
The Significance of Jacob Hollister
Jacob Hollister may not be better than Ertz, but he could actually end up being the reason the Buffalo Bills don’t make a trade for Ertz. I asked above if the Bills NEED to trade for Zach Ertz, and the answer is no. Just because someone will upgrade the team doesn’t mean the trade is a necessity. By acquiring Hollister this offseason, the Bills added some semblance of depth to the Tight End position. And as we all know, he was college teammates with Josh Allen. There may be some pre-existing chemistry to be tapped into there.
Beyond Hollister, the Buffalo Bills have plenty of young Tight Ends vying for a spot on the final roster and/or practice squad. These players include Reggie Gilliam, Nate Becker, Tommy Sweeney, and recent UDFA signing Quintin Morris. While these players aren’t world-beaters, they are certainly qualified to play the role of TE3 for the 2021 Buffalo Bills.
With all that being said, Hollister will be walking into training camp competing for the starting Tight End position with Knox. If he loses, then he’s an excellent depth piece behind Knox as TE2. Therefore, Brandon Beane and the Bills don’t have to overpay for Ertz in a trade. Having this depth means that, if Howie Roseman tries to play hardball with Brandon Beane, he won’t be backed into a corner.
Conclusion: The Bills don’t need Ertz, but he would be an upgrade
If the cap hit isn’t too substantial and the trade compensation is right, acquiring Zach Ertz would be a great move by Brandon Beane. To get a Tight End of this caliber to help out Josh Allen and even mentor Knox would be fantastic, even as a one-year rental. Some could say that bringing in Ertz could disrupt Knox’s development, but it could also be a positive.
As mentioned above, he could provide mentorship to Knox. Furthermore, having Knox and Ertz may be appealing enough to convince Daboll to use more two Tight End offensive sets. Perhaps Knox and Hollister don’t tip the scales enough for him to abandon the Wide Receiver-centric offense. This would also give the Bills added flexibility when it comes to the depth of the position group. They could keep Hollister as perhaps the best TE3 in the league, or they could really lean into the youth.
Air Raid Hour recap
If you’re intrigued by all the Tight End talk and the potential Zach Ertz to Buffalo trade, the most recent episode of the Air Raid Hour is for you. Judge and Tilt break down the Tight End room in deep detail from Dawson Knox to Quintin Morris. Of course, they juxtapose this talk with the Zach Ertz trade and how practical it may or may not be. Additionally, they preview Buffalo’s week five matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs. Do you think the Bills did enough this offseason to beat the Chiefs? On the most recent episode of the Air Raid Hour linked and embedded above, we give you our answer to that question.
If you don’t agree with something I said, have questions, or want to support the brand, you can comment below or reach out to me on my Twitter, @MirskyKendall.
As always, go Bills!