Mediocre teams stay mediocre when they never force themselves to get better at a position. That’s been the case for the Buffalo Bills at tight end the last 15 playoff-less seasons.
Management has been perfectly content with block-first types and tight ends that merely function within the offense — never gambling on the game-breaker. And Scott Chandler was good, not great, the last three seasons.
So this offseason, the Bills took a chance in paying up for versatile tight end Charles Clay.
Living on the cheap at the position? Buffalo will pay Clay $38 million over the next five years. He is now the NFL’s fourth-richest tight end, right behind Jimmy Graham ($10 million per year), Julius Thomas ($9.2 million) and Rob Gronkowski ($9 million).
“What I won’t do is go out and start pressing,” Clay said after signing the deal. “Trying to prove why I got the contract and things like that. Once you start doing that is when guys start to mess up. What I plan on doing: I’m going to go out and play as hard as I can which is what I always do. I don’t feel any added pressure.”
So what will be Clay’s impact?
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman used his tight ends all over the field in San Francisco. On the line. In the backfield. From the slot. Out wide. He’d appear to have the perfect weapon in the 6-foot-3, 255-pound Clay. Out of Tulsa in 2011, Clay seemed like a player without a position — extremely athletic for a fullback, yet too unpolished as a blocker at tight end. In reality, his experience in Tulsa’s spread offense prepared him for a changing NFL.
The last two seasons, Clay caught 127 passes for 1,364 yards with nine touchdowns.
He doesn’t have the NBA power forward-build of a Graham or Gronkowski. Yet Clay is a migraine to cover in his own way. He’s smart (and quick) enough to beat cornerbacks on the back-shoulder route, as he did vs. Baltimore cornerback Jimmy Smith for a 9-yard touchdown in 2013. Above all, he feasts on crossing routes, deep drags and yards after the catch when his experience at running back kicks in.
As a senior in high school, Clay rushed for 891 yards and 11 touchdowns. At Tulsa, he ran the ball 179 times and caught it 189 times.
“A good weapon,” said one NFL personnel executive. “He’s an underrated guy. He can catch the ball. He can run after the catch.”
Despite years of lackluster quarterback play, the Bills haven’t invested much into the position that’s often a quarterback’s best friend. From 2000-2014, the Bills’ top tight end had at least 50 receptions only twice. Five seasons, they didn't even have a tight end reach 300 yards. They’ve skated by with the likes of Mark Campbell (2003, trade), Robert Royal (2006, five years/$10 million), Shawn Nelson (2009, fourth round) and Jonathan Stupar (2008, practice squad).
So it’s not a coincidence that the team hasn’t made the playoffs.
While Chandler had his moments as a towering 6-foot-7, 230-pounder, the offense as a whole remained... average. He wasn’t a match-up nightmare making coordinators decide between linebackers, safeties and corners in coverage. The Bills have lacked the seam-splitting tight end needed in today’s game.
There’s a reason general managers are scouting in the basketball gym today. Maybe Clay can be that weapon.
In San Francisco, Roman used his tight ends in a multitude of ways. Vernon Davis was targeted 95 and 84 times in two of his four seasons with the coach. And Roman also sparked the career of Delanie Walker, a player built similar to Clay. Expect another tight end — possibly former college quarterback MarQueis Gray — finding a role in Buffalo’s offense, too. As Gray said a few weeks ago, this offense is "tight end heaven."
One thing’s for sure: Clay will play. A lot.
The Bills are expecting Clay to be this missing piece.
“They don’t want me coming off the field,” Clay said. “They want to use me in a lot of different positions moving around a bit which is something I feel very comfortable doing. Dating back all the way to high school, playing running back and getting to college and playing so many different positions and then coming here to Miami and playing a lot. It’s something I feel very comfortable doing so whatever they ask me to do, I’m willing to do it.
“I’m going to work at it and try to master it. I’m excited. I can’t wait.”
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