BUFFALO, N.Y. -- While there was some room for debate about which position group deserved the most blame when GM Brandon Beane said the Buffalo Bills needed to run the ball better following the 2020 season, he didn't mince words when it came to critiquing the tight ends.
The group struggled to make much of an impact statistically in 2020, combining for 442 yards and eight touchdowns on 40 catches between 2019 third-round pick Dawson Knox, Lee Smith and Tyler Kroft. Smith and Kroft are no longer on the team, and improved play from that position is a focal point for the 2021 season.
"I thought it was up and down, to be honest with you," Beane said in January about the play of the tight ends. "At the end of the year, I thought we did a little bit, Dawson started to get his groove, but it was never where the opposing defense was like, 'Man, we've got to stop their tight ends from going off.' ... We'd love to have a guy like what we just faced in Kansas City [All-Pro Travis Kelce] -- they don't come very often. But that's what we want.
"We've got some guys here we want to continue to develop and see what happens."
Presumably replacing Smith and Kroft are 2019 seventh-round pick Tommy Sweeney, who missed the entire 2020 season with a foot injury and myocarditis stemming from COVID-19, and former Seattle Seahawks reserve Jacob Hollister.
Sweeney and Hollister are expected to contribute, but it's Knox for whom the team has big expectations this coming season. After a promising rookie year, the Mississippi product had an underwhelming sophomore campaign while dealing with a handful of injuries and COVID-19 after the coronavirus pandemic thwarted his first full NFL offseason. With restrictions loosening, Knox has made the most of this offseason, notably spending time with Bills quarterback Josh Allen in California.
"It was great being with Josh ... It was good hanging out off the field, but on the field was great, too," Knox said. "We just did a bunch of routes and it was during our first phase of Zoom meetings. So if there was a new play or route concept Dabes [offensive coordinator Brian Daboll] was installing, we were able to take it straight to the field. [Allen] kind of would work through some of the points where he would tell me what he was looking for. When to give him eyes on certain routes and real little details that we were able to hammer down on some of the new stuff, which was nice."
Knox, who dropped 10 passes (20% of his targets) as a rookie in 2019 and four (9.1%) in 2020, also worked with what he described as a "hand-eye trainer," Ryan Anderson, to address the issue.
He said Anderson works with several professional athletes, using things like touchpad challenges and a machine that shoots pingpong balls, making them curve (and more difficult to catch).
"I was with him every day for about six weeks or so," Knox said. "Some of the stuff was crazy. It would work your eyes in a way where you'd feel like you're almost hypnotized. I felt like my progress from my first day with him to my last day was pretty great."
Knox's offseason work ethic was, in part, inspired by Beane's desire to have a tight end like Kelce, who caught 18 passes for 183 yards and four touchdowns in two games against the Bills last season. Knox said he spoke with Kelce after Buffalo's loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game and participated in the "Tight End University" summit hosted by Kelce, George Kittle (San Francisco 49ers) and retired former Pro Bowler Greg Olsen in Nashville this month.
His development goes beyond rubbing elbows with the best tight ends in the league. Knox has taken a more cerebral approach to the position he is still learning to play; he converted from a high school quarterback to fullback at Mississippi, and eventually to tight end.
"I want to get to the point where I am that weapon for our team and Travis is the best in the league right now at what he does," Knox said. "But it just comes from watching film and getting on the field and starting to feel out some of the stuff that he can see pretty quickly. It's really not just running your route and being in the right spot. It's how well can you adjust on the fly? How well can you read coverages when the ball is snapped? Because defenses are so good at disguising coverages and safeties are moving around and linebackers are showing blitz and then they're dropping out.
"So it's just being able to catch on to some of those things, which I felt like I was able to do more and more as the year went on. ... I definitely feel confident that I'll be able to do that this year."
Behind Knox, Bills coach Sean McDermott said Sweeney is "off to a good start" after fully recovering from the heart condition that ended his 2020 season. Sweeney has been in the Bills' facility all offseason to train. Allen lauded the team's decision to sign Hollister, whom he played with in college at Wyoming. Hollister ended spring practices doing mainly side work during the two-day minicamp, but he, Sweeney and Knox each turned in solid performances throughout OTAs and minicamp.
Still, with the Bills' Super Bowl window as open as it has been since the early 1990s, there remains plenty of speculation as to whether the tight end position is up to a championship standard. If the Bills come to the conclusion it's not, they could trade for Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz, whom the Eagles have received multiple offers for over the past few months.
Ertz, 30, is a three-time Pro Bowler and was a first-team All-Pro in 2018; he would give the Bills a former Super Bowl champion and someone who was a top-three player at the position before injuries derailed his 2020 season.
Knox was asked about the possibility of adding Ertz, because the Bills have been linked to him more than once this offseason. Knox likened it to his experience at Mississippi, where he earned a starting job despite his background as a walk-on.
"[At Ole Miss] I was learning behind Evan [Engram], who was an All-American," Knox said of the current New York Giants starter. "He graduated and they brought in three four-star recruits that same year, and I feel like that elevated my level of play.
"Then I was able to come in as a rookie [with the Bills] and earn the starting spot. No matter who they bring in, whether it's a rookie or All-Pro like Zach, I think it'll be great just to elevate the competition. Iron sharpens iron and that's a big philosophy that I have. It's great having [Hollister] here, too, and we're learning things from each other. We're competing, but also building some good team chemistry to use multiple-tight end sets and stuff like that. It's really not what can I do to be better than the guy next to me. It's what can I do to make myself the best player I can."