This is the fourth of a 10-part series that examines how well the Buffalo Bills have addressed each position during the offseason. Today’s installment looks at tight end.
The tight end position is supposed to be a prominent part of the Bills' offense.
That's a basic component of Greg Roman's scheme.
As offensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers, Roman helped make Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker impact players at the position for their receiving and blocking. The Bills expected Roman to do the same with Charles Clay after they signed the former Miami Dolphin to a lucrative free-agent contract in 2015.
For the most part, it didn't happen.
Clay ranked second on the Bills with 51 receptions for 528 yards and only three touchdowns, far short of what was expected from someone with a reputation for excelling in the red zone. He missed the final three games of the season with a back injury suffered against Philadelphia in Week 14.
Still, Roman says he was extremely pleased with Clay's performance as a receiver and blocker. He'll tell you that the Bills got their money's worth from Clay, and that he expects Clay will be even more productive this season as Tyrod Taylor continues to develop as a quarterback and Roman's tight-end-centric system continues to evolve.
The Bills' front office clearly agrees, because in the process of creating desperately needed salary-cap room to retain offensive linemen Cordy Glenn and Richie Incognito, it moved $7.5 million of Clay's $24.5 million in guaranteed cash into latter portions of his deal. As a result, Clay will count $9 million against the cap in 2017, 2018 and 2019, according to sports salary website Spotrac.com.
With an average salary of $7.6 million, he's the seventh-highest-paid tight end in the league. Consequently, the expectations remain as lofty as ever.
Here's the breakdown at tight end:
Returning: Charles Clay, Chris Gragg, Nick O'Leary and Blake Annen.
Newcomers: Jim Dray (FA).
Better, worse or the same?: Same, but with plenty of potential for improvement.
Despite Sammy Watkins' public demand for more targets (which was granted and helped him to rank first on the team with 60 catches for 1,047 yards and nine TDs), the Bills' coaching staff is convinced Clay would have had significantly better numbers last season had Taylor looked more often to throw toward the middle of the field.
In weekly film analysis during the season, the coaches saw numerous instances where Clay was open or in single coverage and Taylor didn't look in his direction, even though Clay had a higher rate of receptions on his routes (15.4, per ESPN) than fellow tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Tyler Eifert. That's something Roman and quarterbacks coach David Lee are setting out to change through offseason workouts and training camp.
Clay also needs to be healthier than he was in 2015, when he had a knee and calf issues on top of the back injury that ended his season prematurely.
The Bills found one of the NFL's better blocking tight ends in free-agent signee Jim Dray, who spent the previous two seasons with Cleveland after a four-year stint in Arizona. He'll be utilized in a variety of formations in Roman's complex run-blocking plan to help the Bills' efforts to stay atop the league in rushing.
Gragg remains a somewhat steady No. 2 pass-catcher at the position, but O'Leary will be expected to push him hard by delivering more catches like the 37-yarder he had on his lone reception as a rookie last year.
Here's more food for thought: With Watkins' health a concern, given his recent surgery to repair a broken bone in his foot and other injuries the past two seasons, the Bills will likely need every pass-catcher they have to step up throughout the year.
Besides Robert Woods and others in a receiving corps with wide-open competition for depth, the Bills also have to count on running backs LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams to come up big in the passing game. And, based on Roman's determination to have his scheme to work according to how it's designed, Clay figures to get more than his share of opportunities.
Next: Offensive line.