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Clay signs $38 million offer sheet from Bills

The Buffalo Bills’ courtship of Charles Clay feels like it’s lasted longer than a Kardashian marriage.

Whether the Miami Dolphins’ tight end actually gets hitched to the team wooing him is now up to his current employer.

The Buffalo News learned Tuesday night that Clay has signed an offer sheet from the Bills. The Dolphins now have five days under the terms of the transition tag to match the offer – which The News has learned is for five years and up to $38 million, with $20 million in guarantees – or let Clay go to their AFC East rivals. The offer will pay Clay $24.5 million over the first two seasons, The News has been informed, a structure designed to make it difficult – if not impossible – for Miami to match.

That per-year average of $7.6 million would make Clay the fourth-highest paid tight end in the NFL, behind only Seattle’s Jimmy Graham ($10 million), Jacksonville’s Julius Thomas ($9.2 million) and Amherst native Rob Gronkowski of New England ($9 million).

At that money, it’s clear the Bills (or Dolphins) are paying Clay based on what they think he can do in the future.

The 26-year-old is a former sixth-round draft pick of the Dolphins in 2011. He’s started 47 of 58 career games, with 161 catches for 1,809 yards and 14 touchdowns. His best season came in 2013, when he made 69 catches for 759 yards and six touchdowns. Those totals would all set or match the single-season record for Bills tight ends – a good indication of how starved for playmakers at the position the franchise has been.

Clay struggled through knee and hamstring injuries in 2014, appearing on the Dolphins’ injury report in 15 of 17 weeks during the season, including four times as questionable. He managed to play in 14 games, finishing with 58 catches for 605 yards and three touchdowns. Those totals all would have led the Bills’ tight ends.

Given what they’ve offered him, the Bills surely view Clay as a complete tight end, capable of being an asset as either a receiver or blocker in what’s expected to be a run-heavy scheme under offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Pro Football Focus gave Clay its 11th-highest grade for run blocking among tight ends in 2014.

While #ClayWatch, as it’s become known on Twitter, dragged on earlier Tuesday, the Bills made a move to free up salary cap space to help in pursuit of their prized tight end.

Veteran guard Kraig Urbik agreed to take a pay cut, reducing his base salary for 2015 from $2.65 million to $1.075 million. The move, along with the shifting around of some bonus money Urbik can earn, will save the Bills $1.55 million against the 2015 salary cap.

While the Bills’ cap space is fluid at the moment, records from the National Football League Players Association showed the team with a little more that $16 million available as of Tuesday. That does not include a contract for wide receiver Percy Harvin, which is believed to be agreed upon between the team and player, but has yet to be announced or appear in the NFL’s official transactions, which are published every afternoon.

Restructuring Urbik’s contract gives him a much better shot at sticking on the roster. The 29-year-old is entering his seventh NFL season, and sixth with the Bills. He’s started 53 games in Buffalo, including nine last season – but that was by necessity.

Urbik started the year as a backup on the interior of the offensive line, and it wasn’t until a season-ending injury to Chris Williams and a string of poor performances from rookie Cyril Richardson that the team’s former coaching staff turned to Urbik. He finished the year ranked 53rd in the NFL among the 78 guards who played at least 25 percent of their team’s snaps, according to PFF.

His salary now is more commensurate with a veteran backup as opposed to the $3.75 million he was slated to count against the 2015 cap – which is starter money.

Miami had a little more than $10.1 million in cap space, per NFLPA records, which meant the Bills needed to get creative with their offer sheet – the main reason the process dragged on as long as it did. The transition tag called for Clay to receive a guaranteed one-year salary of $7.07 million had he signed it. If Miami used its franchise tag on Clay, it would have given him a one-year salary of $8.3 million, but virtually guaranteed he would stay with the team. That’s because if the Bills wanted to sign Clay after he was given the franchise tag, they’d owe the Dolphins two first-round draft choices.

Miami signed former Cleveland Browns tight end Jordan Cameron to a two-year contract last week, and reportedly had interest in bringing back Clay to form a strong one-two punch at the position.

The Bills hope their offer to Clay is strong enough to prevent that from happening.

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