Derek Fine has 10 receptions for 94 yards and one touchdown in his brief NFL career.
Yet, the second-year tight end has Bills fans buzzing after his performance at the team’s OTAs.
First, let’s get one thing straight. Fans have a habit of falling in love with marginal players during this time of year who, when the season starts, will likely be working another job. It’s just a fact of life.
This happened more times than I care to remember when I worked for the Patriots. Let’s just say that if some fans in New England had their way, Patrick Cobbs would have earned a roster spot over Kevin Faulk.
But crazy summer roster predictions are one of the reasons the great sport of football has become a year-long love affair in this country. In June, we’re not going to go on Internet message boards and debate if T.O. is going to make the Bills roster.
What has made the NFL a 365-day a year sensation is that fans of all teams have become quasi-general managers and know their favorite teams inside and out.
So when a team like Buffalo hasn’t had a serious receiving threat at tight end in years, fans are going to do their best to find an answer to the problem.
Based on media reports coming out of the Buffalo’s OTAs, all signs point to Fine being the Bills answer at tight end as training camp approaches.
While I’ve seen a lot of these “shorts and t-shirt sensations”—the term I like to give to players who shine when it doesn’t mean anything—fall by the wayside, I don’t believe Fine is one of those players. I was happy when the Bills drafted him two years ago, and I believe he can be a solid NFL tight end.
As with any position, we first have to look at the competition and in Fine’s case, there isn’t a lot standing in his way.
Robert Royal saw the most time at tight end for the Bills last season but that was mostly due to his in-line blocking skills. Royal wasn’t a huge threat in the passing game, catching just 33 balls on the year.
With Royal now in Cleveland, the starting tight end job in Buffalo is wide open.
The Bills drafted Shawn Nelson out of Southern Mississippi in the fourth round of this year’s draft and he no doubt has the best set of physical skills and upside of any tight end on Buffalo’s roster.
However, Nelson is raw and needs to work on his blocking and route running technique, so his most productive seasons will likely be two or three years down the line.
So the starting job appears to be between Fine and third-year man Derek Schouman. While neither is an dominating blocker, Fine is bigger and offers the better combination of receiver/in-blocker, which could land him more playing time early in the year.
Fine has also separated himself from Schouman early this summer in a couple of other areas. Fine is an excellent route runner, has amazing hands and Fine and Trent Edwards seem to have built a great rapport with each other.
It’s important that Edwards have chemistry with his tight end. Fine isn’t a guy who is going to create huge plays down the middle of the field but he doesn’t need to.
With Terrell Owens and Lee Evans on the outside, the Bills need their tight end to be more of a security blanket for Edwards. They need a tight end to get open on 3rd-and-7 and keep the chains moving. That’s a role perfectly suited for Fine.
Now entering his second training camp in Turk Schonert’s offensive system, Fine looks much more comfortable than he did coming out of Kansas as a wide-eyed rookie a year ago. He is a more confident player and it’s showing with his play on the field.
Fine may never be a superstar. He may never be a Pro Bowler. He doesn’t have to be.
What Fine can be is a steady intermediate pass catcher who eats up defenses over the middle, while opening things up for the speedy Bills receivers down the field.
If he can do that, Buffalo will be doing just fine at tight end this season and Bills fan will themselves a new cult hero to root for. And not just in June, but during the regular season when it matters.