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25 - Who will be the starting tight end?

Every summer leading up to training camp asks 25 of the most pressing questions facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. With a new regime and practices at St. John Fisher fast approaching, here is the first installment as we closelyexamine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 29th and Sept. 12th.

As the Bills continue the countdown to training camp in Pittsford at the end of the month, many position battles are expected to take place once practice officially begins. One of the focal points of competition will be at tight end, which has seen a large revolving door of principle contributors, from Robert Royal to Michael Gaines to Derek Fine, all of whom are no longer with the franchise.

At times in recent years, the tight end position has been a valuable cog in the offense, becoming a primary receiving threat for Buffalo's passing game. Other times, the position has been used as an effective wall on the end to open up holes in the running game. Time will tell where the position is headed under head coach Chan Gailey, but wherever the tight end fits into the playbook, the Bills certainly have a viable number of options entering training camp.

Michael Matthews is a new addition to the Bills in 2010, after spending his four-year career with the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants in 2007, New England in 2008, and Detroit last season. At 6'4", 270 pounds, Matthews has great size for an in line blocker and enough speed to find lanes in the passing game.

Matthews is also no stranger to Gailey, as he played for the Bills new head coach during his collegiate career at Georgia Tech.

"I'm looking forward to this opportunity. I'm really excited about being here. It seems like it could be a good fit, so I've just got to get to work and do my best," Matthews said earlier this spring.

With the Bills offense learning the terminology of the new system, deciphering what each player's role will be on this year's squad, Matthews believes he can provide what the franchise is looking for at tight end.

"I feel I fit into this kind of offense and (coach Gailey) has some level of comfort with me and I have some comfort with him, but I'm not expecting anything. I'm going to put forth my best effort and do whatever I can to help the team win," he said. "I'm a big time team player because I don't care about individual stats. So hopefully my best is good enough."

Joe Klopfenstein is another player who brings a veteran presence to the tight end group, and will be playing his second season in Buffalo. He saw action in only one game last year for the Bills after spending his first three NFL seasons in St. Louis. The Rams drafted Klopfenstein 46th overall in the second-round of the 2006 NFL Draft out of the University of Colorado. As a Buffalo, his 86 receptions for 1,071 yards and 13 touchdowns were all school records for a tight end.

Klopfenstein was limited for much of OTAs, but was still in attendance at every workout, learning the new playbook of offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins, so he should be amply versed in the terminology of the new offensive scheme.

Jonathan Stupar was an unlikely candidate thrust into the fray last season with injuries to Shawn Nelson and Derek Schouman. After an impressive preseason slate, where he seemed to be around the ball nonstop, Stupar served as a steady substitute in his two starts at the end of the season, finishing 2009 with six catches for 40 yards in limited duty.

With Schouman and Nelson back in 2010, Stupar will now enter the battle to win the primary slot outright. He was originally signed by the New England Patriots in 2008 as an undrafted free agent after he made 28 career starts at the University of Virginia, tallying 80 catches for 803 yards and three touchdowns for the Cavaliers.

Given his experience last year, Stupar has experience in handling the position, and responded with a consistent performance at OTAs.  He seemed to again gravitate toward the ball, and was able to notch several catches during 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 work all spring. 

The elder statesman, at least in terms of service with the Bills, Derek Schouman returns for his fourth year in Buffalo. After a productive 2008 season that saw him score his first career NFL touchdown, Schouman was lost for the season in the second game of 2009 due to a severe knee injury.  It's been a long road back for Schouman, but he said the support of his teammates has helped immensely in his recovery.

"Injuries are a hard thing to deal with. You feel alienated a little bit, but the good thing about the guys we've got is there's a real strong sense of team and I saw that today," he said during OTAs. "It made me feel good I guess just to know that I'm still part of the team and we're all here for the same purpose."

Schouman had a successful college career at Boise State, where he scored the eventual game-winning touchdown in the famous 2007 Fiesta Bowl triumph over perennial powerhouse Oklahoma. As a seventh-round selection of the Bills in the 2007 NFL Draft, he was expected to make an impact in the lineup, but to this point, has been hobbled by injuries in two of the first three seasons of his career. 

Despite the amount of time he has spent off of the field, Schouman is confident that he can return to the lineup at full strength.

"I'm probably playing catch up. I missed a lot of on the field stuff, but I've been in the books," he said. "Off the field I feel right there. I feel like I know what's going on. It's just getting the actual reps, being in the huddle and getting used to everything and that'll come with time."

Last but not least was the team's selection in the fourth-round of the 2009 NFL Draft from Southern Mississippi, Shawn Nelson. He saw action in 12 games as a rookie, recording 17 receptions for 156 yards, and scored his first career touchdown in last year's epic Monday Night Football showdown with New England in the opening week of the season.

Nelson started 47 of 52 games at Southern Mississippi, catching 157 passes for 2,054 yards and 16 touchdowns, and those 157 receptions rank second all-time in school history. After also battling injuries during 2009, Nelson plans to be back in the picture in 2010, and is confident in the big play ability he can add to the new offense.

"I've always been confident. I'm not cocky, but confident," he said. "I believe in myself and I just hope that coach can believe in me as well and give me an opportunity to make plays because I believe that's what I do. I believe if they give me a lot of opportunities with the ball, I can help this team win."

The tight end race is just that, tight, at this juncture, with five veterans all competing for the starting job.  While Shawn Nelson is clearly the most physically gifted, it appears Gailey wants more out of the position than a dynamic pass catcher.

Only time will tell who eventually emerges as the frontrunner, but at this point, it appears that the Bills have an experienced, capable group of players to choose from once Week 1 arrives.

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