Nick O'Leary, grandson of Golden Bear, battling to remain with Bills

Bucky Gleason

Could tight end Nick O’Leary be next on the Bills’ chopping block?

It sure looks that way when adding up the factors Bills coach Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane will consider before making decisions to reach the 53-man roster.

O’Leary has been a solid but unspectacular player since the Bills selected him in the sixth round in 2016. He had 22 catches for 322 yards and his only two career touchdowns last season after having 10 catches for 151 yards in his first two seasons combined.

This figured to be a critical year for the former Florida State star, who is also known as Jack Nicklaus’ grandson. O’Leary’s contract expires after this season, and he’ll be looking to extend is stay in the NFL. How play he plays this year will help determine his future.

O’Leary is a good enough player to remain in the NFL if the Bills waive him, but he has a few things working against him in Buffalo. He’s a decent blocker but hardly a great one. He a sound receiver but not a dominant one. He has enough skill, but others on the roster are faster or have better hands.

He's, you know, adequate. In other words, his game matches his quiet, unassuming personality.

McDermott and Beane have made it clear over the past year that average players aren’t good enough for them. If they had no problem trading away Sammy Watkins and Marcell Dareus in an effort to improve the roster, you can safely assume they wouldn't hesitate to dump O'Leary.

This also cannot be discounted: McDermott and Beane didn’t select O’Leary in 2016. Rex Ryan and Doug Whaley did. The current roster includes only 11 holdovers from the previous regime. The number is expected to dwindle in the coming weeks as the Bills trim their roster and prepare for the long-term future with quarterback Josh Allen.

Buffalo was wrapping up training camp at St. John Fisher College and preparing for a preseason matchup Friday in Cleveland.

Much has been made about the quarterback competition – rightfully so considering it’s the most important position on the field and the Bills haven’t had a franchise QB since Jim Kelly – McDermott has been intent on creating a Battle Royale at every position. It leads to better players and more depth.

"Those guys have to understand all of it," offensive coordinator Brian Daboll told reporters covering training camp. "It never seems like there's enough meeting time for tight ends, because you're pulling half the time with the offensive line, half the time with the skill guys. We expect those guys to do everything.”

Daboll, who coached tight ends during his last stint with the Patriots, is looking for guys who can play in all situations. It would allow him more flexibility in the offense without telegraphing plays to the opposition based on personnel. His job was made considerably easier in New England when he had Rob Gronkowski working with Tom Brady.

O’Leary will never be confused with Gronk. He finds himself in a dogfight with Jason Croom, Logan Thomas, Khari Lee and Keith Towbridge. The Bills are expected to keep four. O’Leary appeared to be a lock for a roster spot when training camp began before suffering an ankle injury.

Now, he could get squeezed out.

Charles Clay isn’t going anywhere. The veteran remains the best tight end on the roster and has two years remaining on his contact. Clay’s biggest obstacle in Buffalo has been playing with quarterbacks who can get him the ball. He should be more effective this season no matter who starts for the Bills, in part because Brian Daboll is the offensive coordinator.

One player making a push is Jason Croom, who signed as a free agent out of Tennessee and spent last season developing on the practice squad. The Bills believed enough in his potential to keep him around in some capacity last season. The fact he arrived under McDermott and Beane will work in his favor.

"You go in the offseason, and he's in there working," McDermott said told reporters in Pittsford. "You see him make plays in the passing game, in particular, in the spring and then this training camp in Rochester kicked off for him. I go back to the work he's put in, the work he's put in with Coach Boras. I really appreciate his approach as well. You don't do what he's done to this point without putting in the work.”

The Bills also have invested time and energy into developing Logan Thomas, who has spent four seasons converting from quarterback to tight end. He has come a long way since he arrived in Buffalo in 2016 after stints with Arizona and Miami. McDermott saw enough upside to keep him last year.

Lee is playing for the Bills after playing with Chicago and Detroit. He has one catch for seven yards in 32 games over three seasons. Towbridge signed last year as a free agent but had not appeared in an NFL game. Lee is faster but smaller than Towbridge. Neither has the upside of Croom or Thomas.

Thomas is a terrific athlete and a very good receiver who understands the passing game better than most. He’s a big target at 6-foot-6, 250 pounds but needs to become a better blocker. All indications point to him being more polished this season, so he could be ready to assume a larger role.

“I feel like I’ve come a long way,” Thomas said. “Always felt comfortable with the passing game, comfortable with reading coverages and understanding defenses. It’s just the blocking schemes and being able to block. Really, it’s just about getting snaps at the position.”

For now, the competition appears to be whittled down between Croom and Thomas for the second and third slots and O’Leary, Lee and Towbridge for the final spot at the position. It’s a battle worth watching as the preseason continues.

Thirteen players remain on the Bills’ roster from the 2016 season under Rex Ryan, including eight that are starters. Two are tight ends Charles Clay and Nick O’Leary.