Return to Relevance – Tight Ends

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Updated: August 8, 2013
RIEMERSMA CLAIBORNE

Definition of RELEVANCE:
1 – a : relation to the matter at hand
b : practical and especially social applicability : pertinence

If you are a first time reader of the Return to Relevance series, I’ll bring you up to speed faster than Chan Gailey can switch base defensive fronts; relevancy in the NFL is defined as postseason play. By that logic, the Buffalo Bills have not fielded a relevant squad since 1999. The purpose of this column is to compare the 1999 and 2012 squads unit-by-unit, apply reasonable projections to the 2013 roster and determine just how far we have left ahead of us in our effort to return to relevancy.

So far we’ve found that this year’s wide receivers aren’t all too dissimilar from the 1999 unit, the linebackers have the potential to catch lightning in a bottle the way their predecessors did, the defensive backs will likely pale in comparison to the ’99 squad, the offensive line should provide the same slightly-above-average performance put forth in 1999, the 2013 crop of running backs, scheme permitted, should vastly outpace their predecessors, and that this year’s defensive line will be just fine even if they don’t live up to the ’99 crew. We’ve also established that the front office of the late 90’s possessed a keen eye for talent in the draft that has been disturbingly absent from the franchise in more recent years.

Training camp is just now grinding into full swing, with the initial depth chart and team scrimmage providing our first real window into a pecking order on the roster. Any loyal Return to Relevance reader will tell you there are two positions we’ve yet to cover in this space, and with the first preseason game sure to provide deeper insight into the quarterback competition, I thought we’d spend this week examining a unit we can predict with a greater degree of certainty: the tight ends.

Anyone who has watched mismatched Bills linebackers flail at the likes of Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Gates and Vernon Davis can tell you just how valuable a dynamic tight end can be to an offense. After years without a dependable target at the position, Scott Chandler’s production has garnered comparisons to the last productive Bills’ tight end, who conveniently enough played a significant role on the 1999 team; but how similar are the two players truly, and who else comes into the ’99 and ’13 equations?

1999 starting tight end:
TE – Jay Riemersma (14 games played, 11 games started, 37 rec, 496 yds, 4 TDs)

Primary 1999 reserve tight ends:
TE – Bobby Collins (14 GP, 9 rec, 124 yds, 2 TD)
TE – Sheldon Jackson (13 GP, 4 rec, 34 yds)

What jumps out about this unit:
Maybe it’s just me, but Riemersma’s production couldn’t possibly live up to that of the Greek God I remember him as. Even still, the seventh round pick put up a very solid season in 1999, posting his second best totals in receptions, yards and yards per reception. His four touchdowns were the third highest of his career, but as with most receiving targets, that would prove to be a volatile statistic not necessarily indicative of his overall performance (he caught half as many touchdowns in 2004 on only seven catches). Jackson and Collins provided the depth and primary blocking for the unit– Collins’ season numbers look a lot like the Texans tight ends against Buffalo in Week 9 of 2012– but Riemersma was clearly the star. He is second only to Pete Metzelaars in receiving yards and touchdowns among tight ends in team history even though he played 66 less games for the Bills. When measuring a fellow Bills tight end against Riemersma, his historical significance within the franchise cannot be overstated.

Performance and ranks:
Points per game: 20 (16th)
Offensive yards per game: 333.3 (11th)
Passing ypg: 205.8 (19th)

Riemersma was second on the team in receiving TD and third in receptions, but his most surprising rank was slotting in second at yards per reception (excluding Antowain Smith and Bobby Collins who combined for 11 catches). His ability to strike on the big play stretched the field for his teammates, a critical bonus out of the tight end position that even skilled players don’t always bring to the table.

According to Football Outsiders, Riemersma posted a middling 57 percent catch rate on passes thrown his way, but he was still the tenth ranked tight end in DVOA (value per play) and seventh in DYAR (value per catch). As the tight end on the 19th ranked passing attack in the league, those are no small accomplishments.

2012 starting tight end:
TE – Scott Chandler (13 GS, 15 GP, 43 rec, 571 yds, 6 TD, 2 fum)

Primary 2012 reserve tight end:
TE – Lee Smith (16 GP, 4 rec, 13 yds)

What jumps out about this unit:
This is the thunder-and-lightning equivalent of a tight end duo, with Smith serving exclusively as a blocker as Chandler doing the work in the passing game. Drafted in 2007, Chandler posted career highs in every major statistical category in 2012, tying his career mark of 6 TD set in 2011. Fans will no doubt remember his performance in the second quarter against the Patriots in Week 4 when he caught two TDs of 20+ yards. I’m not suggesting a single game vaults him into Gronk/Graham territory, but that performance did illustrate his ability to be a focal point of a passing attack that must be game-planned for by the opposing defense in addition to his role as a consistent safety net for his team, which we already know he is capable of filling. Doug Marrone, Nathaniel Hackett and co. have been very conservative bringing him along during training camp as he completes a borderline-miraculous recovery from a torn ACL, and rightly so. In a passing game with little certainty, Chandler is a rare known commodity capable of providing stability to the 2013 offense.

Performance and ranks:
Points per game: 21.5 (21st)
Offensive yards per game: 5,486 (19th)
Passing ypg: 204.3 (25th)

Chandler was second on the team in targets, receptions (tied with Spiller), receiving yards and first down catches. He tied Stevie Johnson for most receiving touchdowns and actually led the team in yards per catch, establishing himself as a threat to stretch the field much like Riemersma. Also like Riemersma, he had an underwhelming catch rate of 58 percent, although the 2012 passing attack was considerably worse than the ’99 incarnation. Football Outsiders didn’t much care for Chandler’s campaign last year, with his defense-adjusted numbers paling in comparison to his raw production. He was a reliable feature in a terrible passing offense with a quarterback whose most effective pass play was the running back screen. He will once again be called upon to play a feature role, but if he is to take the step to the next level in the league, he will need to work himself in as a cog in a humming offense rather than be called upon as the team’s premier downfield threat.

The State of the Union:
While Chandler will certainly be the focal point of this unit in 2013, the offseason overhaul has added a layer of intrigue to the unit. The Marrone-Hackett era at Syracuse featured tight ends among the top four receivers each year, including a senior season from new Bills signee Nick Provo with 51 catches, 537 yards and a team high 7 TDs. While the coaching staff’s history of success with and reliance on the tight end position indicates that this unit will play a heavy role in this year’s offense, one has to wonder how deep this unit can possibly run with Chandler and Smith sure to claim spots.

Many fans were taken aback by the team’s first official depth chart which listed rookie burner Chris Gragg as fifth man on the totem pole. First and foremost, the aforementioned document means so little in the grand scheme of team planning that Denver Broncos head coach John Fox was quoted as saying his team “released a depth chart only because the league makes us.” Even still, the competition is worth examining, depth chart aside. Mike Caussin is an interesting player, although he is operating at a severe disadvantage missing time with a hip injury. Dorin Dickerson seems to be Gragg’s main competition for a spot on the team. The two project more as H-backs than traditional tight ends, flashing more big play ability than their more sedentary counterparts. It’s simply too early to project which of the two is likely to make the squad and see significant playing time, but from watching Hackett tinker with his toys at Syracuse, I don’t think the winner of the training camp battle will be collecting dust on the sideline during the regular season.

Truly though, the comparison between the ’99 and ’13 tight ends is a comparison between Riemersma and Chandler. Chandler has a long way to go in developing the red zone consistency to contend with his predecessor, but he’s unquestionably the best tight end the team has employed since Riemersma and is just about as easy to root for from a fan’s perspective. Can the 2013 Bills tight ends return the team to relevance? Not on their own, but the Chandler-led crew is poised to match if not exceed the production of Riemersma and company.

Previously in the Return to Relevance Series:

Defensive Line

Defensive Backs

Running Backs

Offensive Line

Linebackers

Wide Receivers