Tight ends aim to reverse history

In Buffalo's no-huddle offense, the tight ends should see plenty of open acreage. Derek Fine and co. are eager to make the position a weapon for the first time in a decade. BFR's Tyler Dunne talked to Fine Thursday and has the story inside...

There wasn't a millisecond of hesitation. Standing outside of the locker-room entrance at St. John Fisher, Derek Fine gave Buffalo's no-huddle offense a punctual endorsement.

"I like it," he said. "I like it a lot. Everybody is on the same page. It's pretty easy the more we do it."

And the more the Bills do it, the more it appears Fine and the Bills' other tight ends will be major beneficiaries.

On one side, Terrell Owens will demand double coverage. On the other, Lee Evans could do the same. And in the middle — where linebackers are (ideally) scurrying about like confused water bugs, the tight end will enjoy 7/11 goodness. Open for service, all the time.

The recipient of this trust fund figured to be rookie Shawn Nelson. The athletic freak from Southern Miss trickled in Buffalo's lap in the fourth round of April's draft, presumably to compete for a starting job immediately. But like most rookie receivers in the NFL, Nelson's adjustment has been gradual.

Look for Fine and Derek Schouman to be the ones exploiting defenses in Buffalo's no-huddle offense. That's how Fine views it — two tight ends, not one, giving defenses fits.

"With Lee and Terrell now and Marshawn (Lynch) in the backfield, it works out better if there's two of us on the field," Fine said. "It causes problems when one tight end stays in the box and the other runs routes."

Last year, the young tight ends didn't bring much to the passing game. Schouman and Fine combined for only 247 yards on 25 receptions with two touchdowns last season. Now that Robert Royal is out of the picture and Terrell Owens is in the picture, both will be counted on heavily to provide punch between the hashmarks.

To Fine, this year is day to last year's night.

At Kansas, Fine was the utility man in the Jayhawks' high-powered spread offense. He was sent in motion, used as a H-back, released on pass routes, everything. Yet still, he's not a gimmick. As Fine notes, he lined up in a stance 60 percent of the time as a senior. After playing an entire season in a stance, the game is starting to slow down.

"I'm a lot more comfortable this year," Fine said. "Last year was my first year so I was trying to adjust and everything. I'm a lot more comfortable and have a lot more confidence in myself now."

At Thursday's practice, that was clear. Fine delivered the pass play of the day, working with Ryan Fitzpatrick. Buffalo's new backup quarterback looked right, freezing the defense, and hit Fine for a 20-yarder down the seam in traffic. Similarly, Schouman has shown great hands in the short-to-medium passing game.

In tandem, Fine will typically be the primary blocker and Schouman the primary receiver. And gradually, Turk Schonert can sprinkle Nelson into the equation. After practice Thursday, Nelson worked overtime on pass routes as one of the last players to leave the field.

"All three of us should see a considerable amount of time," Fine said. "The thing that probably sets me apart is blocking. I try to be aggressive with that. ‘Schou' definitely has route-running ability over me but I'm just going to play hard and let everything play out."

Fine foresees the three-way competition invigorating the tight end position as a whole. Schouman, Fine and Nelson have all come into the league sequentially the last three years. Rather than break the bank on a first-rounder such as Brandon Pettigrew — who the team had considerable interest in — the front office opted to zing their darts at mid-rounders, in hopes that one of them would solve this decade-long tight end quandary.

The position has toiled in anomaly ever since Jay Riemersma started at the turn of the century. Maybe that's the reason so many starting quarterbacks have flamed out since Jim Kellly's retirement. Without a reliable tight end knifing down the seams, so many quarterbacks have crumbled.

Buffalo's current trio is itching to collectively make the tight end a weapon within the no-huddle offense this season.

They're itching to make it something defenses must account for every single play.

"Competition is good and it's healthy," Fine said. "When you have guys that are really good behind you it helps push you a little more. We're trying to take this position to a new level and make it something people have to deal with around the league."

Tyler Dunne is the Publisher of BuffaloFootballReport.com and also writes for the Buffalo News, Olean Times Herald and the Packer Report. Contact him at thdunne@gmail.com.

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