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Charles Clay is not the problem with the Buffalo Bills

As he enters his third year with the team, Clay is burdened by the expectations of a lofty contract. Should he be?

Of all the players on the Buffalo Bills, there are few who have taken the same level of heat over the last couple seasons that tight end Charles Clay has dealt with.

The five-year, $38 million contract Clay signed in 2015 is the target of frequent criticism, for a few reasons. First, it was a very large contract at the beginning of the deal; the total value was the fourth-largest for a tight end in 2015, and remains the sixth-largest today. In terms of cap hit, the contract has been a bit more manageable, although Clay is facing the fourth-highest cap hit in the league this season (after ranking 13th in 2015 and eighth last season).

When discussing Clay’s contract, it’s important to remember the context. The Bills weren’t exactly flush with cap space in 2015, but they had room to make a move. The Miami Dolphins, after handing out a monster deal to Ndamukong Suh, did not. Clay was on a transition tag, so the Dolphins had the right to match any deal the Bills threw Clay’s way. The deal had to be a large one, or else the Dolphins would have been able to match. One could say that it would have been better to have avoided signing him to any offer at all, but at the time the Bills were fairly desperate for tight end help after losing Scott Chandler to the New England Patriots. Former general manager Doug Whaley felt he needed to make a move to nab a tight end, and adding an important player from a division rival was too alluring an opportunity to pass up.

It didn’t help matters when Whaley made the decision to convert a portion of Clay’s 2016 salary to a roster bonus, which spread the money out over the remainder of the deal. As a result, moving Clay in either of the next two seasons is practically infeasible. He’s going to be on the roster through at least the 2018 season, if not 2019 (the final year of the contract).

As we’re all well aware, signing Clay didn’t lead to the Bills returning to the playoffs. Of course, nobody really expected Clay to be the final piece of the puzzle. Individual tight ends just aren’t that important to a team, no matter how good they are; the Patriots have played 23 regular-season games without Rob Gronkowski, and they’ve won 19 of them.

Now that I mention Gronk, that leads me to another point of criticism for Clay: his lack of production as a receiver. It is true that, as a receiver, Clay is off from his peak with the Dolphins:

Of course, some of that could easily be explained by the difference in philosophies between the two teams. In Clay’s last two seasons with the Dolphins, they threw the ball 1,189 times, eighth-most in the NFL in that span. In his two seasons with the Bills, they’ve thrown it a league-low 939 times. It’s hard to rack up stats when the opportunities aren’t there.

That philosophy, though, speaks to why the Bills coveted Clay so much in the first place. His receiving numbers were good in Miami, but he was never in the same league as guys like Gronk and Jimmy Graham. The tight end position has evolved drastically over the last few years, but the Bills’ offense has been a throwback to the seventies for a few years now. Clay was, and remains, one of the better blocking tight ends in the NFL. PFF graded him as the fourth-best run blocking tight end in the NFL last season (77.7), and he played more run snaps than each of the top 12 tight ends. Clay’s strength has always been his well-rounded play, and he’s still one of the best tight ends in the NFL in that regard. That talent is valuable to a run-heavy team like the Bills, and it’s why they had no trouble offering up more money than any other team was willing to give him two years ago.

Thanks in large part to the contract restructures of the last few seasons, the Bills didn’t have much cap room to work with this year, and they currently rank 20th in the NFL in available cap space. Next season, however, the Bills are currently projected to have a little over $24 million to work with, good for 14th in the NFL. It’s not a ton of money, but it’s a much better situation than some other teams; the Dolphins, for example, are currently $11 million over the cap for next season.

Make no mistake, Clay hasn’t been great for the Bills so far. There’s also the matter of his knee, which hasn’t caused him to miss any time but did land him on the injury report for most of last season and could have attributed to any sub-par play. That said, he’s far from the top of list of reasons the Bills have missed the playoffs, despite what fans of his old team might think, and if the defense is able to kick that pesky habit of allowing 200-yard rushing games they may make it back sooner than you think.