Over the last few seasons in the NFL, there’s been a rise in talent at the tight end position, leading to a bit of an evolution at the position.
Traditionally a hybrid of offensive line and wide receiver, the tight end was usually used as a release valve in the passing game, a third or fourth option when protection breaks down or receivers are covered downfield, and as support in run and pass blocking.
Sure, there were some physical specimens making big plays along the way (Shannon Sharpe -10,060 yds, 62 TDs; Tony Gonzalez -12,053 yds, 83 TDs).
But it wasn’t until last year that tight ends got the universal love they deserved as potent offensive weapons.
There was, of course, Rob Gronkowski, who became the darling superstar of the NFL last season by shattering tight end records in TD receptions (17, he led the league in all of 2011), total TDs (18), and yards in a season (1327).
Listening to some, Rob’s already a shoe-in for Canton (I’ll wait until his body of work gets a little larger).
His performance was so fantastic, he eclipsed fellow standouts at the position in 2011, including teammate Aaron Hernandez, the 49ers’ Vernon Davis (who was their sole receiving weapon in the playoffs, following “The Grab” to beat the Saints by almost single-handedly taking out the Giants with a 112-yard performance on three receptions with two touchdowns, only to lose in OT), and the ever popular Antonio Gates (who missed the first five games and still registered 778 yards and 7 TDs).
However, looking down the list of the top tight ends in the NFL coming into 2012, it seems no one has been eclipsed quite so much as Buffalo’s Scott Chandler.
Talk about selling a player short, Chandler is currently ranked 24th among tight ends on ESPN.com’s fantasy football board. Go to NFL.com and you won’t find his name in the top 25 of any of the five fantasy analyst’s tight end rankings (including Matt “Money” Smith’s… who, in addition to really liking alliteration, also looks startlingly like William H. Macy).
It’s too bad too, as this could really be a breakout year for the Iowa alum who spent the first five of his six NFL seasons getting waived and cut off mostly practice squads in San Diego, New York, and Dallas (he was twice let go by Dallas, actually).
The last time the Cowboys dropped him in 2010, Buffalo snatched him up and the 2011 season began with Chandler scoring 2 TDs on a 63-yard day (five receptions) in what was really his first NFL game against Kansas City (his only other time on the field was at the end of 2010).
Over the course of 2011, a guy who had no NFL stats in five years previous amassed 389 yards (ranked 4th in Buffalo) and 6 TDs (2nd), including another two touchdown game against Washington and a second five catch game at Miami (averaging 14.2 per reception and a career high 71 yards).
Though he missed two games due to an ankle injury towards the end of the year, Chandler still finished as one of the most vital members of Buffalo’s pass attack and a part of that new species of NFL tight end, combining a big body (6’7″, 260 pounds) with the speed (4.78 40-yard dash) and sure hands of a receiver.
Chandler’s already making his presence known in 2012, standing out as perhaps the second best receiver on the team behind Steve Johnson. In his first preseason outing, Scott grabbed two monster balls against Washington, the first of which was the offensive high of the day for Buffalo, a 26-yard leaping grab over the helmets of two defenders across the middle.
Taking into account his 38 receptions last season (5thon the team) and Scott’s increasingly obvious rhythm with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, Chandler could very well become the second option in the passing game for Buffalo in 2012, and rightly so.
Granted, on a team like Buffalo, with such an historic culture of losing attached to it, it’s easy to overlook a player and undervalue him across the nation, but maybe that will just add to Scott’s success in 2012.
Though he’s not quite the force in the blocking game that he is in receiving, Chandler is seemingly still not worthy of being ranked higher than Minnesota’s Kyle Rudolph (not even the No. 1 option for the Vikings) or the Giants’ Martellus Bennett (who may get more reps due to Travis Beckum’s ACL recovery, but still only posted 144 yards and 0 TDs in 2011).
If opposing defenses feel similar, you can almost bet that Fitz will find him and we’ll see the fleet-footed big man regularly burning secondaries in 2012.
Chandler showed in 2011 he’s got the NFL game to potentially become a potent weapon in the Buffalo offense and though the NFL as a whole hasn’t quite deigned to notice yet, coach Chan Gailey and Fitzpatrick have — meaning you can expect to see more plays designed around their talented tight end.
In truth, Scott’s perhaps the best tight end Buffalo’s seen since the days of Pete Metzelaars in the 1990s, and though it remains to be seen if he’ll end up with the same numbers come the end of his career (3,686 yds and 29 TDs in 16 seasons) he’s definitely talented enough to be a force in 2012…
…maybe even one worthy of getting ranked in the top 20 by next season… maybe.
Either way, Buffalo should expect to see a lot of 84, both in the offense and on jersey’s around the Queen City. If the rest of the NFL wants to ignore him, that’s just fine with the Bills.
Joshua Bauer is a writer with Football Nation