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Bills training camp positional preview: When will TE Dawson Knox get extension? – The Athletic

This is the latest article in our training camp positional preview series. Catch up on the rest: Quarterbacks | Running backs | Wide receivers 
In the buildup to the 2021 season, tight end was clouded in uncertainty. Two years into his career, Dawson Knox had yet to show the consistency the Bills coveted from the position, and there were endless rumors about the team looking at veteran options.
The offseason came and went, and the Bills decided to bet on their young tight end to develop in his third season — and the gamble paid off. Knox became a nearly every-down player as the position’s importance slowly evolved in the game plan.
What can Knox do for an encore, and how does the rest of the group look in 2022? Here is a detailed outlook for when the Bills return for training camp in late July.
Besides Knox’s playing reputation from last year, the Bills also invested in the position by bringing in a high-end backup in O.J. Howard. It’s a one-year deal for Howard, but he provides an immediate upgrade over Tommy Sweeney as a blocker and pass catcher. Sweeney and Quentin Morris returned for another season, and the team also signed undrafted rookie Jalen Wydermyer.
Will the Bills get an extension done with Knox before the season?
The Bills saw Knox break out in a big way last season, transitioning from an inconsistent young player to a red zone threat who offers above-average athleticism for the position. His catch consistency took a step forward as he played nearly every snap. In 17 active games including the playoffs, Knox was on the field for 93.6 percent of the team’s offensive snaps. He has long been a favorite of quarterback Josh Allen as well, as the duo’s tight off-field relationship has carried over with trust in need-to-have-it situations.
The Bills must now decide how important Knox is to the entire operation. It became evident throughout the offseason that the cost to re-sign tight ends is rapidly rising. The Browns recently re-signed David Njoku to a four-year contract worth nearly $13.7 million per year, with $17 million was guaranteed at signing, and it will rise to $28 million guaranteed as long as he’s on the roster past March 20, 2023. Njoku has had only one season better than Knox’s best, and that came in 2018. Knox had more targets, receptions, yards and touchdowns than Njoku in 2021.
Knox is not quite the game-breaker and talent like some others at his position, but that doesn’t matter in the tight end market because of how difficult it is to find a good starter. As long as he gives the Bills that same baseline of ability as in 2021, they’ll have a trustworthy starter who can have huge weeks now and then. There is some risk that Knox could be a one-year wonder, so they might choose to see how he begins training camp and the regular season rather than racing to sign him right now.
The Bills followed a similar approach with left tackle Dion Dawkins (re-signed mid-August 2020) and nickel corner Taron Johnson (early October 2021). Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki and Cowboys tight end Dalton Schultz are set to become free agents next offseason, so it might behoove the Bills to act quickly before the price goes up in the offseason due to an increased salary cap in 2023.
O.J. Howard vs. slot receivers
This battle probably wasn’t what you expected, but it’s an important one based on how the offense evolved last season. When the Bills were at their best, they ran the ball far more effectively and maintained the threat to run throughout their games. One way they did that was by using heavy personnel more often than they did in the first three months of the season. They did it without a second tight end most weeks, instead opting to use offensive tackle Tommy Doyle as a sixth offensive lineman and de facto tight end. Now with Howard, they get an improvement over Sweeney as a blocker and a massive improvement over Doyle as a pass catcher.
More time for Howard likely means a slight philosophical switch for the Bills. While this will still be a pass-heavy offense, they might wind up passing out of 12 personnel (two tight ends) more often than they did last season, which will take a receiver off the field. It could lead to a slight devaluation of the slot receiver, which would be in line with the low-risk contracts they signed Isaiah McKenzie and Jamison Crowder to this offseason. Of course, Howard must prove he’s worth time on the field, so his overall effectiveness versus what McKenzie and Crowder do for the offense will be a minor storyline this summer.
Tommy Sweeney
Sweeney is a favorite of the coaching staff and the locker room and likely one of the “glue guys” coach Sean McDermott often refers to in news conferences. The troubling part for Sweeney is that the Bills didn’t believe they could make him active late last season. Furthermore, when given a chance to start for an injured Knox, Sweeney struggled to make a difference. He also doesn’t offer much on special teams, hurting his chances to be active on game days. Sweeney is consistent, though; he has good hands and is a solid blocker, making him suitable to round out the group. But he is in the last year of his rookie deal, so there is potential for one of the younger tight ends to steal his spot with a strong summer.
Quentin Morris
You can probably lump Morris and Wydermyer together as former undrafted players. Still, Wydermyer’s learning curve is a bit bigger as a rookie, and he seems likelier to land on the practice squad. Morris is an interesting player heading into his second year, showing good athleticism on routes, although he needs to show better as an in-line blocker. Morris could easily be a surprise inclusion on the 53-man roster if he can outplay Sweeney this summer.
None of the top three tight ends plays many special teams as of now, which means the Bills will need to make up for it elsewhere. They likely do not want to risk Knox to an injury and may want to be careful with Howard, given his injury history. On the other hand, Morris could put himself in better roster standing by showing he can play on special teams, but he’s yet to do so in his pro career.
Dawson Knox, O.J. Howard and Tommy Sweeney
Knox and Howard are locks, and the Bills will likely want to keep a third tight end because of the offense’s increased emphasis on the position and 12 personnel. Sweeney will need to earn it, but the Bills have seen him as a steady backup option since he arrived in 2019. There is an opportunity for Morris or Wydermyer to make it over Sweeney, but the most likely outcome is for Morris and Wydermyer to be on the practice squad this season.
(Top photo: David Butler II / USA Today)


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