Long after practice was over for the Buffalo Bills on Thursday, Charles Clay remained on the field.
One by one, an equipment manager fed balls into a JUGS machine for the veteran tight end, who stood a few yards away, making every catch. That type of extra work has become commonplace for Clay as he manages a nagging knee injury that has either prevented or limited him from taking full practices since he was hurt in Week 5 against the Bengals.
“Having that injury midseason was tough,” Clay said Thursday. “You try to get in game shape and you're still kind of dealing with it. It's a combination of things, I guess you could say.”
Clay said he won’t require surgery after the season, and that rest should have him 100 percent for 2018.
“Sometimes you come out and you can do a little more than what you expected,” Clay said. The Bills’ training staff has been “good at telling me to listen to my body and not try to push things. They've been really helpful. They've been all supportive. I'm definitely fortunate, because it's not like that everywhere.”
Even with missing three full games, Clay has taken 54 percent of the offensive snaps. He has 43 catches for 494 yards and a pair of touchdowns, numbers that closely resemble his production over the previous two seasons, when his knee also gave him problems at times.
“I think he's done a good job of it, from what I understand, a little bit better this year than in years past,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said of Clay in regards to managing his injury. “Rob Boras, the tight ends coach, does a good job, just the communication with Charles, making sure that he's got the reps he needs during each week, but also without wearing him down, either.”
Clay will face his former team Sunday for the sixth time since coming to the Bills. In those previous five games against Miami, he has 21 catches for 270 yards and three touchdowns.
“There's probably two coaches and two players on the entire defense that were there when I was there,” he said. “It doesn't even bother me now. Honestly I don't even think about it. People here welcomed me with open arms and made this feel like home from Day One. I see some of the people that I knew and it's good to see them, but at the same time, this is my family here.”
The Bills face an interesting decision with Clay in the offseason. His contract runs for two more years, and will count $9 million against the salary cap in each one of those. If the Bills cut or trade Clay after June 1, he would count $4.5 million against the 2018 cap and $4.5 million against the 2019 cap. That's not a huge savings, so they might be better off keeping a player who has been a good, but not great, contributor.
Clay made five catches for 68 yards in Week 15 against Miami, his second-most catches and receiving yards he’s had in a single game this season. There is a good chance Sunday to once again put up good numbers. Miami is allowing 58.9 receiving yards per game against opposing tight ends, according to analytics website Football Outsiders, which ranks 28th in the NFL. Old friend Kiko Alonso has particularly struggled in coverage, allowing a total of 779 receiving yards, which is the most among linebackers by a whopping 179 yards, according to analytics website Pro Football Focus.
Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke took issue with that this week.
“I know you guys try to build these narratives about who’s bad and who’s good and all of this stuff. Kiko has his moments when he makes plays; Kiko has moments when he’s in a tough matchup,” Burke said. “It’s the same thing for all the rest of those guys. To try to correlate directly like Kiko being a major issue in pass coverage, I don’t necessarily see it that way. There are times where we feel Kiko is a good matchup with what his skill set is. There are times where we’d rather have somebody else on say a tight end or a back. That’s going to vary week to week.”
Getting Clay against Alonso would figure to be in the game plan for the Bills.
“Our coaches, they do a good job of putting guys in favorable positions,” Clay said. “We've been fortunate against them. It's always hard to beat a team twice. We know they'll throw some wrinkles at us. It'll be a tough game. It's always chippy when we play them.”
Clay is anxious to make amends for a mistake against New England in Week 16 that got overlooked by what happened immediately after it. On the play before Kelvin Benjamin’s touchdown-turned-into incomplete pass, Clay let a touchdown pass slip through his fingers.
“No question. It shouldn't have got to that point,” Clay said of the Benjamin play. “That's my job. You work hard for those opportunities. They don't come all the time, so you've got to take advantage of them. The margin between winning and losing is slim, so you have to make those plays. All I can do is learn from it, keep working, keep getting open and the next time I get the chance, just finish the play.”
The Bills activated safety Colt Anderson from injured reserve to the 53-man roster Thursday, making room for him by releasing fellow safety Trae Elston. Anderson, primarily a special teams contributor, has been out since Week 4, when he suffered a broken arm against the Atlanta Falcons. Elston made one start in Week 8 against Oakland as an injury replacement. He finished with 18 tackles and one interception, playing mostly on special teams. That has been Anderson's primary job the past two seasons when healthy.
Wide receiver Deonte Thompson left practice Thursday with a shoulder injury.
“He’s still being evaluated right now,” McDermott said after practice. “We'll see."
Cornerback Shareece Wright (concussion) and center Ryan Groy (illness) did not practice. Cornerback E.J. Gaines was a full participant after being limited Wednesday.
"He looks like he's ready to go," McDermott said of Gaines.
Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin practiced on a limited basis Thursday after sitting out Wednesday.
"Similar to last week. He practiced today and did some good things,” McDermott said. “We’ll get a better feel tomorrow."
Clay, Thompson, guard Richie Incognito (veteran rest day) and defensive tackle Kyle Williams (groin) were also limited participants.
Left tackle Laremy Tunsil missed his second straight practice for the Dolphins because of an ankle injury. Safety Michael Thomas (not injury related) also missed practice Thursday for Miami. The Dolphins listed five players as limited participants: running back Damien Williams (shoulder), quarterback Matt Moore (foot), safety T.J. McDonald (shoulder), defensive end Charles Harris (thigh) and tight end MarQueis Gray (hip).