It’s no secret that Bills tight end Charles Clay has failed to truly live up to the five-year, $38 million contract he was signed to prior to last season.
The transition tag played a role in that, as the Bills had to overpay Clay to ensure that the Dolphins wouldn’t be in a position to match their offer. Still, a restructuring of Clay’s contract during the offseason makes it very difficult for the Bills to part ways with Clay prior to the end of the deal in 2019.
Only three tight ends currently have a larger cap hit on the books for next season than Clay’s $9 million. That list doesn’t include Rob Gronkowski (seventh), Jordan Reed (12th), Travis Kelce (15th), or Delanie Walker (16th). It’s hard to justify his place in the financial hierarchy among tight ends given his production (or lack thereof) on the field.
Through 12 games this season, Clay has seen a drop in per-game rates for receptions (3.9 to 3.3) and yards (40.6 to 31.3), and his touchdown catch against the Steelers leaves him two short of his total from last season. While Clay shouldn’t be expected to compete with the likes of Gronk or Jimmy Graham, those numbers are off even from his last two seasons in Miami.
If #Bills TE Charles Clay catches 12 passes for 153 yds and 2 TDs vs the Browns on Sun, he'll equal his stats from last yr (same # of GP)— Jeff Hunter (@MrJeffHunter) December 16, 2016
Why has Clay dropped off so far, and why is his production so far behind what his salary would indicate it should be? Bills offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn has some thoughts on the matter, and they involve the cautious play of quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
"[Taylor] is cautious with the ball. That’s why we’re tied for first in the league in turnovers," Lynn said. "Sometimes he can be too cautious, but I’ll take a guy like that over a guy that throws it all over the place and creates mistakes.
"You know, Charles Clay does a lot of work over the middle. It could be a factor, Lynn said. "It could. But I think Charles not practicing every day and not having that me-to-you factor with the quarterback, some quarterbacks need that trust factor to throw to a guy. I think that’s some of it. And when a player’s not on the field, no matter how good you are, your skills will start to diminish if you’re not out there practicing."
Clay’s name has been on the injury report just about every week this season with a long-standing knee injury, including this week’s. He almost never practices on Wednesdays, and considering there are only three days of practice in most weeks that’s a significant amount of downtime. Taylor’s problems on the field are well known by this point, but chemistry between a quarterback and his receivers is important, and if Clay isn’t in practice as often as some other players, it’s going to be hard to develop.
Ideally, Clay’s knee will return to full strength by next season, and he can return to being a productive receiver as well as one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL (his 77.2 run block grade is tied for fourth among tight ends, per PFF). Of course, a lot of that will also depend on possible turnover at the quarterback position and the coaching staff, but that’s a discussion for another day.