The Buffalo Bills are hard at work installing head coach Chan Gailey's offensive system and many fans are optimistic about the role that each individual offensive player will have on the field. Gailey has a talented backfield, a young but skillful group of receivers, and an equally young but improving offensive line to build around his quarterback. One hallmark of traditional offenses has been the use of the versatile tight end, and the Bills have potential at that position as well.
Veteran Derek Schouman is the longest-tenured Bill in the tight end group, and is joined by the returning Jonathan Stupar and 2009 fourth-round draft pick Shawn Nelson. A new addition for 2010 is Michael Matthews, a 6'4", 270-pounder in his fourth NFL season out of Georgia Tech.
Matthews joined the Bills on April 21 of this year, when he was claimed off waivers from the Detroit Lions. As the only new addition in the Bills tight end room, Matthews was pleased with how he has fit in his new surroundings thus far in training camp at St. John Fisher.
"It's been going good. Camp is where you come work out all those kinks, get with the guys, work out everything, and mesh well," he said. "I think we're doing well, everything is going along good. We are installing a lot, so there's a lot on your brain as well as on your body with the physicality. We're just going to keep working."
A talented run blocker, Matthews emerged as a key anchor in the team's running game during spring OTAs, and has continued his consistent play into training camp. Despite the fact that there are four players competing for only one starting spot, Matthews said that the interaction between the tight ends has been positive since he joined the team.
"I would say we are all very cordial. We all talk, talk a lot, and help each other," he said. "That's how it has to be to make each other better. It's been a lot of fun."
There also figures to be a good chance that the two tight end set will get its fair share of usage during the course of the regular season providing an additional role for the tight end corps.
Prior to appearing in nine games last year with both Detroit and New England, Matthews spent his first two seasons with the New York Giants, who inked him to a rookie free agent contract in 2007. He appeared in all 32 regular season games in 2007 and 2008, and was the starting tight end in Super Bowl XLII on a squad that included current teammates Reggie Torbor and Kawika Mitchell.
Matthews' first season in Buffalo reunites him with Gailey, who brought him in as part of his first recruiting class at Georgia Tech. His past experience with Gailey and his coaching style gave Matthews a unique perspective entering organized team practices.
"I know what he expects. I know, usually, how he wants things done. I know how he likes to coach, and what he expects out of his players. He expects us to work hard, come out here and do our best, be focused, and be a team, be together," Matthews said. "That's what it's about. The Bills, we're grasping on to that, we're becoming one unit, but it takes time."
What his familiarity with Coach Gailey doesn't guarantee is a starting role on his NFL roster. When asked if he has an affinity for Matthews having recruited him in college, Gailey made it clear he wasn't playing favorites with respect to his roster.
"I have an affinity for anybody that plays the game the way it's supposed to be played," Gailey said. "Where they played and who they played for doesn't matter once they get here."
Featured primarily as a blocker throughout his collegiate career, Matthews said that the transition into an all-around tight end once he entered the NFL was quite a departure from his college days. One thing that has noticeably improved from spring workouts is his route running and pass catching, somewhat of a new facet to his game, considering he has registered only 17 receptions overall since his junior season with the Yellow Jackets in 2005.
"I've always worked on it, throughout my career. In my collegiate career, I wasn't used that way, so if you aren't used that way, you obviously aren't developing in that capacity," Matthews said. "I would say that here, I'm just getting back to using those (skills). Back in high school, you're the man, and then you go adapt to a different role in college, and now adapting to the role they are trying to use me at. I'm a team guy, so if they want me to go catch a couple passes, that's what I'm going to do."
The battle for the tight end spot has been intriguing over the first week or so of training camp. While Schouman has missed a bit of time with an injury, he, along with Matthews, Nelson and Stupar, have engaged in a spirited competition where no candidate has stood out clearly from the others.
Regardless of who is chosen the starter at the end of camp, Matthews plans to contribute in any way possible, with a team-first attitude, to help the Bills in 2010.
"I believe that whatever role they have me in is totally up to the coaches, whatever capacity they want to use me in is totally up to them. I'm all for whatever it is," he said. "As far as the offense goes, I expect us to be physical, I expect us to run the ball, I expect us to make big plays down the field, I expect us to do all of that. It's just a matter of working together and accomplishing those goals."