It can't be exaggerated. How Buffalo approaches the tight end position in this draft will directly affect Trent Edwards' development in his first year as the undisputed starter.
Not only because the Bills did very little in free agency – the journeyman Anderson was acquired after the best available tight ends were already picked over. But also because it was oh-so-obvious how much Edwards prefers his tight ends in the passing game.
Obviously, a big reason for this affinity was the fact that Edwards was a rookie simply trying to get by, play-by-play, in a complicated NFL system. Its natural instinct to settle for the safe five-yarder instead of risking a 20-yarder to Lee Evans' outside shoulder with the lingering fear that Evans may be turning inside, leading to a game-changing "pick six."
Expect Edwards to take more chances and push the ball downfield with more regularity – a comfort he slowly adopted as the season progressed. Rather than safe, risk-free dump-offs to ex-Bill Michael Gaines, who averaged 8.6 yards per catch, look for Edwards' inner-leash to loosen. More shots down the Cover 2 seam. More five- and seven-step drops. More playing on instints, instead of thinking.
But this mindset requires new personnel, a new face at Edwards' go-to receiver: the tight end. If block-first, catch-second tight ends Royal and Gaines combined for 50 receptions last season, than an actual athletic pass-catching tight end could be a major weapon for Buffalo.
But how soon is too soon? Does "need" trump "talent?" Does Buffalo see something in Anderson that Oakland, Miami, Detroit and Atlanta didn't see last year? Shouldn't matter. Whether the Bills go wide receiver or cornerback at the 11th overall pick, may not bear what they do in second round. The aforementioned five tight ends could all be on the board when Buffalo picks 41st overall.
And of the bunch, Keller, Bennett and Davis are all tremendous value selections. All are predominantly downfield threats, which is exactly what Edwards needs to take the next step.
At 242 lb., Keller isn't physically imposing and at 6-foot-2, he won't win many jump balls. He doesn't have the dominant, can't-miss potential of Vernon Davis and Kellen Winslow Jr., both of which were sixth overall picks. He does closely resemble two past borderline first round picks, Dallas Clark and Heath Miller. His athleticism and speed (4.5-range 40) consistently overmatched linebackers in the Big Ten last season, as the Purdue-graduate caught 124 passes for 1,652 yards and 11 touchdowns during his final two seasons. Above the numbers, Keller gained a reputation as a diligent worker with the clichéd, yet vital "intangibles" to overpower the man in front of him on a play-to-play basis. He caught many passes over the middle at the ball's highest point, in traffic.
Keller's 4.55 time in the 40 at the NFL Combine topped all tight ends. He also had position bests in the vertical leap, 20-yard shuttle time, and broad jump. Concerns over his slightly undersized frame were answered in the bench press, where he threw up 26 reps.
Initially a wide receiver in college, Keller has the big-play mentality Buffalo lacks at tight end. His blocking is just average, but the Bills don't need a road-grader at TE. Royal could sufficiently fill that role. Keller's stock has gone Guitar Hero over the past month – through the roof. Previously slated as a second- to third-round talent, Keller has only validated his collegiate numbers more through pre-draft workouts.
Many draft predictions in our mock-obsessed nation have Keller going in the first round. Also the Bills front office could have a Rogaine moment with New Orleans picking one spot ahead of Buffalo in the second. The Saints love stacking weapons offensively in a Bill Polian-fashion. A sly, mini-trade at the top of the second round may be needed if the Bills truly want Keller.
Still, don't pull your hair out if that happens.
Bennett, a former basketball player for the Aggies, and Davis, a key cog in USC's pro style offense, would each be instant starters (and Edwards' new best friends).
Far too many young quarterbacks wither without a big play tight end. Keller, Davis or Bennett are pure, vertical threats that could become offensive mainstays. Trent Edwards' must-have antidote.
Tyler Dunne is the Publisher of the Buffalo Football Report. Contact him at email@example.com.