This is the next piece in a series analyzing the Bills' most significant questions entering the offseason. Part 2: What is Charles Clay’s future?
On the last Friday of the Buffalo Bills’ regular season, the last player on the practice field catching extra passes from the Jugs machine was Charles Clay.
Clay sure didn’t have much to show for all his effort in 2018.
The 29-year-old tight end caught just 21 passes for 184 yards and no touchdowns.
It was by far the worst production in his four seasons with the Bills, and his catch total ranked 42nd among NFL tight ends.
That’s obviously intolerable for a player whose salary cap hit – $9 million – was fourth highest in the league among tight ends. And it’s why Clay almost surely will be an ex-Bill when the 2019 league year begins in March.
“It obviously didn’t go how I wanted it to, but I continued to work and let the chips fall where they may,” Clay said the day after the season ended.
Clay has a year to go on the five-year, $38 million contract he signed in 2015. His cap hit again will be $9 million, which ranks sixth among tight ends in 2019. Presuming he gets released, he will cost $4.5 million against the cap in 2019, and the Bills will save $4.5 million in both real cash and cap space.
“I can’t control it, so I can’t really think about it,” Clay said of his future with the Bills. “All I can control is how I work. So that’ll be my main focus, to try to improve myself and not really worry about where I’ll be or if I’ll be here or if I’ll be somewhere else.”
Clay’s four seasons with the Bills could serve as a cautionary tale for General Manager Brandon Beane as he embarks on this year’s free-agent shopping season.
The lesson: Don’t force it.
The Bills were desperate for a play-making tight end after the 2014 season. The tight end crop in the 2015 NFL Draft was abysmal. The most productive has turned out to be Pittsburgh fifth-round pick Jesse James, who has averaged 30 catches a year.
The free-agent pool for tight ends was shallow, too. Clay was rated as the second best available behind Julius Thomas, who wound up being released after two disappointing seasons in Jacksonville and then retired after the 2017 season.
The Bills made Clay the fourth-highest paid tight end in the league, hoping to take full advantage of his mobility and multidimensional skills after watching him catch 69 passes for Miami in 2013 and 58 in 2014.
But Clay never ranked in the top 10 in tight-end catches for the Bills. His catch totals before this year were 51, 57 and 49, good for 17th, 12th and 14th among tight ends, respectively.
His shortage of game-breaking plays hardly was all his fault. He played in an offense that ranked in the bottom five in passing yards each of the past four seasons.
Granted, Clay had some success running across the field and using his speed. But he did not have a big enough frame, at a shade under 6-foot-3, to be the kind of chain-moving, security-blanket target the Bills’ quarterbacks have needed.
The Bills also could have used a tight end with a bigger catch radius in the red zone. Clay had nine TD catches in four years. The 6-foot-7 Scott Chandler, who didn’t have Clay’s speed, caught 17 TD passes as the Bills tight end from 2011 to 2014.
In hindsight, the Clay signing was a failed reach.
To his credit, Clay never let his numbers impact his effort.
“It wasn’t how I imagined it going when I set my goals at the beginning of the year, but the biggest thing is being there for the young guys, continuing to work how I work, leading by example and things like that,” Clay said. “There’s a lot of good I can take from it. There’s a lot I can learn from it. And it’ll make me better in the future.”
The Bills likely signaled their intentions on Clay when they made him a healthy scratch in Week 16 at New England. Buffalo has two young tight ends in Jason Croom, who caught 22 passes, and Logan Thomas, who caught 12. The 6-5 Croom has as much speed and athleticism as Clay and is a little bigger. Can he take a great leap forward in his second year on the field next season?
The Bills’ tight end room needs another player with above-average size and 50-plus-catch ability. Then they could pair that player with Croom and threaten defenses in both the run and the pass out of two tight-end sets.