The Buffalo Bills did everything but lay out a red carpet for Charles Clay to walk on when he made his official visit two weeks ago.
Team co-owners Terry and Kim Pegula picked Clay up in their private jet to bring him to Buffalo. Along for the ride were coach Rex Ryan, offensive coordinator Greg Roman and tight ends coach Tony Sparano Jr. – all of whom took part in the sales pitch.
The contingent left no doubt: Signing Clay was the Bills’ No. 1 priority in free agency.
“It was huge. It goes to show how much they actually value me,” Clay said Tuesday, speaking with Western New York reporters on a conference call. “I felt like I was one of those guys from the very second I stepped on the plane. Just getting the chance to meet and talk with the Pegulas, such down-to-earth people.
“They had me excited before I even got to Buffalo. I was ready to sign before I even got here.”
Of course, it didn’t play out that way. Although it was clear there was mutual interest when free agency started March 10 – the day Clay came for a visit that would last three days – his contract with the Bills didn’t become official until Friday, when the Miami Dolphins elected not to match Buffalo’s offer. That was perfectly fine for Clay.
“Early on they tried doing some negotiations,” Clay said of the Dolphins, who had the option of matching any contract offer he received under the terms of the transition tag. “At the same time, Buffalo was the team that kind of stepped up and showed that not only was I valued, but I was pretty much their No. 1 priority. Anytime you get put in that situation where you’re valued so high by a team that you feel like is going in the right direction, you kind of want to be a part of that.”
The process dragged along in part so the Bills could structure an offer to Clay the Dolphins would find to be difficult – if not impossible – to match. They were able to do so by coming up with a structure that pays him $24.5 million in the first two seasons of a five-year contract worth up to $38 million. Clay’s salary cap hit in 2015 will be only $5 million, but jumps up to $13.5 million in 2016 – the same year the Dolphins are expected to have cap issues with a huge salary being paid to defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and the need to extend quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s contract.
“When you look at the organization as a whole, new owners, new coaching staff, a lot of the moves they made this offseason, I was kind of intrigued by it before I even took my visit,” Clay said of why the Bills interested him so much. “I could kind of get a sense that they were a team that were on the rise. They were a team that was looking to win right away. That’s definitely something I was excited to have an opportunity to be a part of.”
The transition tag presented an odd situation for Clay. He clearly wanted to leave the Dolphins, but they had the option of bringing him back. Miami had a five-day window in which to decide whether they wanted to match Buffalo’s offer but used only two days before saying they chose not to.
“It was strange, simply because you take that visit and everything went well,” Clay said of having to wait to see whether he’d come to the Bills. “I was so excited to have that opportunity, and I wanted to sign right away. … At the end of the day it all worked out just how I wanted.”
For it to work out for the Bills, they’ll need Clay to perform like one of the best tight ends in the league – which is how they paid him. His average of $7.6 million per season is the fourth-highest yearly average at the position. Clay, however, said that won’t change his approach.
“I don’t feel like anyone can put as much pressure on me as I put on myself. I’m going to go out and work hard every single day,” he said. “What I won’t do is go out and start pressing, trying to prove why I got the contract and things like that. Once you start doing that, that’s usually when guys start to mess up.
“I don’t feel any added pressure. I obviously set high standards for myself, so I’m going to work hard and do everything I can to help this team win, no matter what that is. Whatever I have to do, that’s what I’m willing to do.”
If that means blocking for new running back LeSean McCoy – remember, Ryan said last week on an interview with WGR 550 AM “we’re going to run it 50 times if we can” – Clay is on board for that, too.
“Whatever he feels will win games, I’m all up for it,” Clay said. “I don’t care if we throw the ball 50 times a game, we run the ball 50 times a game. At the end of the day, I just want to win. That’s what it all boils down to in this league, is wins and losses, so if we’re running the ball 50 times a game and we’re winning, I don’t think anyone will be complaining.”
For the type of money they’re paying him, the Bills obviously feel like they’re getting a complete tight end – which is exactly what Clay sets out to be.
“I want people to look at me and say ‘OK, he’s one of the best pass catchers in the league, he’s also one of the best pass blockers.’ I want to be an all-around player,” he said. “I don’t want to just be labeled as a pass-catching tight end. That’s one thing that bothers me like crazy. At the end of the day, I want to be that versatile guy, and I want to be a guy that can be in on third and 1 and run block, that can be on a third-and-long situation where I have to pass block, or be in on a third and short where I have to beat man-to-man coverage. I just want to be that guy who can do it all instead of just being labeled as that pass-catching tight end.”