How the Bills can solve their Devin McCourty problem via the draft
Patriots safety Devin McCourty has been nothing short of dominant against the Buffalo Bills throughout his NFL career. Over the course of the past nine games against the divisional rival dating back to 2012, McCourty has yielded just seven receptions for 69 yards and no touchdowns to the Bills while intercepting three passes and breaking up four. Buffalo tight ends in particular have struggled to beat him, as just three of those seven catches allowed were by tight ends (all by Charles Clay between 2015 and 2016), and they went for just 22 yards of offense.
While McCourty has been a top performer throughout his career, tight ends have enjoyed a measure of success against him in 2015 and 2016. Over the past two seasons, they’ve been able to exploit their size advantage over McCourty (who is 5-feet-11 and 193 pounds) for 18 catches on 32 targets and a touchdown, while McCourty has managed just one interception and no pass breakups. While his passer rating against of 99.09 when covering tight ends is not awful by the rest of the league’s standards, QBs have a rating of just 77.21 when targeting wide receivers in his coverage in the same two-year time span.
While Clay has been a solid blocker throughout his career with the Bills, he and the rest of the position group for Buffalo have not seen significant production on the receiving end. Clay tallied 57 receptions and four touchdowns in 2016; modest figures that no Bills tight end since 2013 has topped. He has earned pass-blocking grades of at least 75.0 in each of the past three seasons (2014 was his final season with the Miami Dolphins before leaving for Buffalo in free agency), and because of this, is clearly a valuable player to the Bills. However, considering his mild impact in the passing game (not to mention the position group’s general inability to take advantage of the size mismatch against McCourty), it’s time for Buffalo to add a more productive receiving target.
Fortunately for Buffalo, this is a good draft class for tight ends. Alabama’s O.J. Howard is a complete prospect, with the athleticism to consistently stretch the seams and the blocking ability Buffalo obviously covets. However, he would almost certainly need to be selected in the first round, and while this is a viable strategy, there are other options available for the Bills.
Toledo’s Michael Roberts had an outstanding 2016 campaign for the Rockets, as his 16 touchdowns was twice as many as the next-highest tight end total in the country, and his 85.9 overall grade also led the nation. He had just three drops on 48 catchable targets, a significant improvement coming off his four drops the year prior on just 41 targets.
One of the tells that suggests Roberts can produce quickly at the next level is his usage at Toledo. The Rockets used him in-line, at H-back and split out to the slot. Also, he wasn’t just a red-zone or short-yardage target, as he was able to produce on a variety of routes
Roberts’ size would be an obvious mismatch against McCourty, and almost every other safety in the NFL for that matter. At the Senior Bowl he measured over 6-feet-4 and weighed 261 pounds, and his 11 5/8 inch hands were the biggest among all North squad players. He is also expected to perform very well at the athletic events at next week’s combine, which is sure to elevate his stock further.
Again, Buffalo may be in position with the ninth overall pick to take the top tight end prospect in the draft in Howard, but Roberts has all the traits they’re looking for, and should be available on day two in the second or third round. Adding a viable downfield receiving threat to the existing strong blocking corps of Clay and Nick O’Leary (77.6 run-blocking grade in 2016) would give the Bills one of the most complete tight end groups in the league, and put them in better position to attack McCourty and the Patriots vertically down the middle of the field.