Since the 2010 NFL Draft when the New England Patriots added tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Buffalo's division rival has been the standard-bearer for tight end usage in the new NFL. While Gronkowski's oversized body makes him an athletic anomaly and the tight end of offensive coordinators' dreams (and defensive coordinators' nightmares), Hernandez's 6'1" 245 lb. frame makes him an undersized tight end in a traditional offense. But Bills fans know that the Patriots do not run a traditional offense. Hernandez lines up tight, splits out wide, and even starts from the backfield, all in an effort to create mismatches. The versatile tight end produced 51 receptions for 483 yards and five touchdowns in just 10 games in 2012.
At 6'3" 244 lbs., Bills seventh-round pick tight end Chris Gragg enters the league having heard the same pre-draft scouting reports as Hernandez. Being called undersized and not a true tight end once meant no place on the field. In a modern offense it means fast, athletic, and a multitude of options on the field.
Gragg played in such an offense at the University of Arkansas, lining up tight, in the backfield, in the wing, and split out wide. Although he was limited to just five games his senior year due to a knee injury, Gragg still amassed 72 receptions for 1,003 yards and seven touchdowns in his college career. The knee injury likely raised red flags for most teams, but Gragg's stellar performance at the NFL Combine (4.5 40-time, 37 and a half inch vertical, 10-foot-five-inch broad jump) stood out amongst the tight end class.
Gragg has heard the Hernandez comparison before but not just from any old source. Patriots backup quarterback, and Gragg's quarterback of two years at Arkansas, Ryan Mallett has seen similarities in his current teammate and his old one.
"[It's] because of our size and the things that we do," Gragg said of the comparisons to Hernandez. "He really doesn't block that much. Our size is similar, but they say I'm a little bit faster."
While nobody expects the seventh-rounder to step in and immediately post Hernandez's numbers, Gragg is similarly molded body-wise and hopes his play will be as well.
"I want to be somebody the coaches can depend on to be blocking or catching the ball," said Gragg. "I know I can stretch the field. That's really my strength. Stretching the field and [creating] mismatches against the defense."
Buffalo's installation of an up-tempo, versatile offense seems to be perfectly suited for a player with Gragg's experience in multiple roles, and head coach Doug Marrone said as much after the team made him their final draft selection.
"I'm actually thinking about building upon what he was doing at Arkansas," said Marrone. "He's got 4.5 speed and I think he can stretch the field vertically, which gives you some good matchups at times depending upon what's on defense."
Gragg has a similar assessment of his own game and what he brings to an offense.
"I feel like I can do whatever the coach asks me to do," said Gragg. "If they want me to block, if they want me to run down the field and stretch it, if they want me to make plays on third down. I think I put all of that on film in college, but whatever the coaches ask me to do here I'm willing to do it."
With Bills starting tight end Scott Chandler coming off of ACL surgery, Gragg will see increased reps while Chandler continues his recovery.
"He's a great tight end," Gragg said of Chandler. "Coaches have told me he's one of the smartest football players. I can't wait to meet him and learn as much from him. If he's not there, I'm going to try to do my best and to make the most of that opportunity."
Overall, Gragg likes what he sees and thinks the future is bright for an offense whose collection of youth and speed makes it one of the most intriguing in the league.
"I see we have a lot of great playmakers out here with this rookie class," opined Gragg. "Robert Woods did good, Marquise Goodwin [too], EJ looked really good throwing the ball. Really all of our guys were making plays.
"I think our offense can be very explosive this year. We play in a very hard division. It's got champions in it. I think that we're trying to get on that level."