Every summer leading up to training camp Buffalobills.com asks 25 of the most pressing questions facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. So with practices at St. John Fisher fast approaching, here is the first installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 25th and Sept. 14th.
The tight end position has been one of little fanfare for the Bills over the years when it comes to being a significant factor in the passing attack. There have been blockers and pass catchers, but the starter's role has rarely been manned by an all-purpose threat. At this point it's difficult to determine just how good some of the young candidates for the starter's role might be, but what is certain is youth will be filling the position.
With three-year starter Robert Royal released by the club last spring, the tight end position was left to three young veterans and a rookie.
"We've got young guys right now and we like our guys and they got a lot of experience last year," said offensive coordinator Turk Schonert. "We had two guys playing that really hadn't played before in both Dereks."
Derek Schouman, entering his third NFL season, is the most seasoned of the group. He's made 13 starts in his career, but has caught all of 18 passes in his time with Buffalo. He's a versatile option in the blocking game as he's been used at the fullback, H-back and in line tight end position. Known as a blocker with an attitude, Schouman also is effective in gaining separation from coverage defenders in the intermediate passing game.
Schouman was slowed somewhat by injury during the OTA sessions, but when in the lineup he performed admirably in the passing game, particularly in working the underneath routes.
Former fourth-round pick Derek Fine is coming off a rookie season in which thumb surgery compromised his progress. Still he was able to factor into the offense making five starts while catching 10 passes including a touchdown reception against the Jets in Week 9.
"I only got to play half of the season last year, so a lot of the relationships I developed on the field were kind of last-minute," said Fine. "So this off-season and the OTAs has definitely helped progress our position to a much more confident position."
Fine had perhaps the strongest performance in spring practices gaining consistent separation from defenders, while also proving to be a reliable option in the red zone.
Jonathan Stupar is still another young candidate. He was a member of Buffalo's practice squad in 2008, but he's eager to land a spot on the 53-man roster. At 6'3" and 254 Stupar can line up next to tackle and grind, but he can also be an outlet in the passing game.
"Stupar is part of the mix," said Schonert. "He has some athleticism. He's a good big-sized kid that was in New England's camp."
Buffalo also has two rookies on the roster in fourth-round pick Shawn Nelson and undrafted rookie Travis McCall. McCall is more of a blocker while Nelson has the potential to be a dynamic weapon in the passing game.
And the Bills plan to use Nelson as such in his first season, which is why Nelson is spending more time learning the intricacies of Buffalo's passing game from a position out wide, rather than on the line.
"Basically my role is to come in and help this team in the passing game," said Nelson. "That's why I'm working with the receivers while the other tight ends are working on their pass protection and their different formations. We decided I would work with receivers and work on stems and plants and stuff like that and learn a couple of routes."
Therefore it's unlikely that Nelson becomes a finalist for the starting tight end role, which encompasses far more responsibility than being split out in the slot or wider to catch passes. Buffalo's coaching staff is going to take it a step at time realizing the best way Nelson can help them now is as a mismatch in the passing game.
McCall meanwhile, is a blocking candidate with stiff competition and likely won't be a factor for the starting position.
Heading into training camp Fine and Schouman are the clear frontrunners. They're the only two candidates with NFL game experience and both have established a rapport with quarterback Trent Edwards. And whoever has more on field chemistry with the Bills' signal caller could ultimately determine who lands the starting role.
And Edwards made it clear who he feels most comfortable with coming out of minicamp.
"I think (Derek) Schouman's been here the last couple years with me, he was the same draft class with me, and I feel very comfortable with Derek," said Edwards. "I think he's progressed really well through these last couple practices and I think he's going to be a big part of our pass game. Derek (Fine) and John (Stupar) and those guys are going to need to step up as well as Shawn (Nelson). But I really am feeling more and more comfortable with Schouman."
Though Schouman appears to clearly have the edge, in the end it could prove to be a tag team approach with Schouman and Fine sharing the job. That's because all head coach Dick Jauron wants is more production from the position that he's seen his previous three years as sideline boss for the Bills.
"We like our young guys," said Jauron of his tight end group. "They are fairly well-rounded. I do believe they'll all be efficient in our passing game, maybe more. We'd like to see more production. We'd definitely like to. Generally the guy lined up at tight end is in a spot that's closest to the quarterback and the throws are shorter, which means it should be an easier throw. It's got to be accurate because it's in tight spots, but we've got to utilize that. I believe that Trent is a quarterback that can and will utilize that."