With a relatively unproven wideout contingent behind Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods, Charles Clay has to have a larger role in the Bills 2016 offense than he had a season ago.
After making 21 receptions for 255 yards with two touchdowns in his first four games with Buffalo, the team’s most prized free-agent signing of the 2015 offseason amassed only 30 receptions, 273 yards and one score in his next nine contests.
He was injured in the loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on December 13 and didn’t play in the Bills’ last three games.
A year ago, Clay inked a five-year, $38 million pact with Buffalo after a rather peculiar and surprisingly aggressive battle between the Bills and Dolphins to secure his services. The size of his deal to call Western New York home was met with a fair share of criticism.
Now, among tight ends, his contract ranks seventh in total value and average per year, but the $24.5 million guaranteed is still the highest at his position, which was a direct result of the Pegulas not being bashful about opening their pockets and the back-and-forth with the Dolphins.
Beyond those two truths, Clay had leverage that was rarely mentioned — his standing as a legitimate three-down tight end.
He was likely targeted by the Bills because of his unheralded production in 2013 and 2014 with Miami — ninth-most yards among TEs over those two seasons — and offensive coordinator Greg Roman viewing him as an optimal blend of Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker, the two tight ends who thrived in his offense with the 49ers.
Three-down tight ends are growing increasingly rare, and they’re extremely valuable in Roman’s old-school, smash-mouth, run-heavy scheme.
With Clay on the field, Buffalo’s offense doesn’t given away anything pre-snap based on its personnel. Typically aligning tight to the formation, he’s just as liable to stay in as a blocker on a power run off tackle as he is to speed down the middle on a seam route.
While Clay is more of a “jack of all trades, master of none” than anything else, he was acquired to be a prominent facet of the Bills offense, and his versatile skill set lends itself to being just that.
He’ll be adequate-to-dominant as a move blocker in the run game. That’s meaningful despite not making the stat sheet or scoring any fantasy points.
But Clay needs to be more involved — and more reliable — in the Bills pass game during his second year in Buffalo. There aren’t 600+ targets to go around in Roman’s offense, but 425 is a reasonable guess for overall attempts in 2016.
Sammy Watkins should garner at least 140 of those, which is just under nine per game. He saw 128 targets as a rookie yet averaged just 7.38 per outing as an NFL sophomore.
Clay should be the second-most targeted player on Buffalo’s roster, and I don’t think 100 targets is unreasonable. Last year, nine tight ends had the football thrown their way over 100 times.
That would leave 185 throws to be dispersed between Robert Woods — the most targets he’s had in a season is 65 — LeSean McCoy, whoever wins the WR No. 3 competition in camp and a handful of backup wideouts, tight ends and runners.
Clay was given 102 targets in his most productive campaign of 2013 with the Dolphins. He racked up 69 receptions for 759 yards with six touchdowns.
If he can come close to that statline — which is a nice benchmark the Bills should aim for — Buffalo’s aerial attack will be difficult to slow down because of its pass-catching athleticism at all parts of the field.
We’ve documented Taylor’s middle-of-the-field usage, and it’s a specific aspect of his game he and Bills coaches have noted will be worked on this season.
The quarterback’s potential improvement between the numbers coincides with Clay emerging as more of a trusty, go-to target.
I truly believe Roman wants to and will feature Clay in a primary role this season. But if he struggles with drops on open seam throws like he did on a few occasions in 2015 and isn’t more of a dangerous red-zone threat, Taylor will have his work cut out for him when scanning the middle of the field.
If he can be the steady move tight end he was in Miami while playing a high percentage of snaps, the super-diverse offense Roman originally envisioned for his Bills will really take shape and really take off.
That’s why Clay is Buffalo’s biggest offensive x-factor in 2016.