The Buffalo Bills ended their 2019 season with a glaring need for a physical, pass-catching threat. Management will need to explore all options to address the problem, which even includes providing a fair opportunity to a forgotten weapon.
The Buffalo Bills had their most fruitful season in over two decades, yet the same couldn’t be said for tight end, Jason Croom. The 25-year old was placed on injured reserve with a mysterious hamstring injury a week before the regular season commenced.
The jury is still out on whether Croom’s injury was so severe to warrant such a drastic maneuver or, more likely, was just another example of roster wizardry by revered general manager, Brandon Beane. Regardless, with each passing week of the team’s season, the 25 year old became more and more forgotten.
Splashy Start with Bills
Croom didn’t exactly set the world on fire during his rookie campaign in 2018; netting 22 receptions for 259 yards and a single touchdown. However, in his defense, having a very raw Josh Allen, historically bad Nathan Peterman and an attrited Derek Anderson under center, behind a patchwork offensive line no less, is typically a recipe for offensive futility.
With Charles Clay and Logan Thomas as his only competition at tight end, Croom was able to finagle his way into the starting lineup on three occasions and played in 15 total games. During the course of the season, he did make just enough splash plays to keep Bills fans intrigued. Most notably was his first (and only) receiving touchdown of his career against the heavily favored Minnesota Vikings in week three.
He nearly gained Duke Williams-like folklore midway through the season by seemingly pulling in a spectacular one-handed touchdown against perennial bullies, the New England Patriots. Alas, the catch was overturned upon further review and the Bills proceeded to get their butts whooped.
The remainder of Croom’s season was rather uneventful, save for a respectable four catch, 55-yard performance against the despised Patriots (note: he also lost a fumble in the same game).
There are a few things that make the undrafted free agent from the University of Tennessee an enticing prospect. Firstly, you can’t help but notice that he looks the type. Standing at 6’5 and a chiseled 245 pounds, Croom immediately portrays himself as a mismatch for opposing defenses. Throw in a respectable 4.69 40-time, and the man has the tangibles to be a legit weapon – if used correctly.
Perhaps Croom’s biggest strength is his ability to make things happen in the open field. His 6.2 YAC/R in 2018 would have landed him sixth among NFL tight ends, should he have met the minimum reception threshold. With offensive coordinator Brian Daboll evolving as a play caller as last season progressed, scheming up ways to isolate Croom against stiff linebackers or smaller defensive backs should be a priority should he be in the Bills’ near-term plans.
The third-year pro is not yet a polished blocker, but many believe he has the tangibles to take the leap if coached well. This includes draft expert Lance Zierlein:
"Uses controlled steps into targets as a blocker. Has some conviction in his run-blocking and could see improvement with more coaching. Has frame to be an NFL in-line option."
It will take the continued diligence of Croom, coupled with the guidance of tight ends coach Rob Boras, and perhaps a sprinkle of technique adjustments from offensive line coach Bobby Johnson for the ex-Volunteer to weaponize his potential in the trenches.
Buffalo’s current crop of tight ends is very much subject to material turnover over the offseason. It’s safe to say that rookie sensation Dawson Knox will be a Week One starter, but beyond that, there are many open question marks.
Injury problems aside, Tyler Kroft played nowhere near his $6.4 million per season price tag when healthy this past season. Other than his timely game-winning touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 15, the ex-Cincinnati Bengal was a non-factor. Given his dead cap hit would only amount to $1.6 million should he be cut, it wouldn’t be surprised if Kroft is not a Bill next season.
Speaking of disappointing tight ends, Lee Smith regrettably fits into this dubious category. The eight-year pro was brought in to bring veteran stability and physicality to augment the team’s running game. Although he may have accomplished both to a certain degree, he was a penalty machine that routinely killed drives at inopportune times. Smith signed a three-year, $9 million contract with Buffalo last offseason, but can become a distant memory with a meager dead cap hit of $1 million if released.
Being a seventh-round draft pick, Tommy Sweeney’s rookie season was a pleasant surprise. After a relatively hot start, the Boston College product was supplanted by Kroft once he became healthy. Much like Croom, Sweeney has a lot of potential and will get an opportunity to take the next step.
There is always the possibility of Beane & Co. going big game hunting in free agency for Austin Hooper or Hunter Henry. However, the poor returns from the likes of Kroft and Smith last season may result in them shying away from another big investment in the tight end position.
Regardless of what transpires over the offseason, you cannot have enough weapons on offense. With that in mind, it would be prudent for the Bills to retain Croom as an exclusive rights free agent with a price tag in the vicinity of $580k for the upcoming season. He deserves an opportunity, and it would be a crying shame if he were to take his talents elsewhere (e.g. the Patriots) and prosper.