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90 Players in 90 Days: Buffalo Bills TE Charles Clay

After “underperforming” over the first two years of his contract, here’s to hoping Clay can affect the passing game in 2017.

When the Buffalo Bills made Charles Clay one of the highest-paid tight ends in the NFL, it was hard to predict the kind of blowback they’d see two years down the road.

The contract, which the Miami Dolphins had the right to match after giving Clay the transition tag, had to be high given the emphasis then-head coach Rex Ryan and then-offensive coordinator Greg Roman were placing on the running game. They had a plan, and then-general manager Doug Whaley did what he needed to do to execute it.

Of course, as you well know, I had to put “then” in front of all those titles for a reason. The plan didn’t put the Bills back in the playoffs, so none of those guys remain with the Bills. Clay, however, is going to be around for a few more seasons. Let’s take a look at what he has to offer.

Name: Charles Clay
# 85
Position: TE
Height/Weight: 6’3”, 255 lbs.
Experience: 7
College: Tulsa
Draft: Round 6, Pick 174 by the Miami Dolphins (2011)

Financial Situation (per Spotrac): Clay is in year three of the five-year deal he signed in 2015. He carries a $9 million cap hit for each of the next three seasons, with his dead money figure not falling below that until 2019. Like it or not, Clay isn’t going anywhere for at least two more years.

2016 Recap: Clay led the Bills last year in receptions (57) and targets (87) while tying the now-departed Justin Hunter with four receiving touchdowns. The bulk of his production came after the birth of his son in December, including his season-highs of eight catches for 85 yards and two scores in the Week 16 overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins.

Pro Football Focus gave Clay a 77.7 run block grade in 2016, which was good for fourth in the NFL. None of the three players ahead of Clay (a group that includes fellow Bill Nick O’Leary) played as many run snaps; in fact, none of the top 12 saw more run block snaps than Clay’s 361. Part of that is opportunity, for sure, since the Bills ran more than any other team last year, but Clay consistently performed well in the run game.

Positional Outlook: Regardless of the financial situation, Clay would be sticking with the Bills this year. Behind Clay and O’Leary are a collection of street free agents and undrafted rookies. At least one will make the roster, but it’s doubtful that any could supplant Clay at the top of the depth chart.

2017 Offseason: Clay’s health, which has been a big concern over the course of his time with the Bills, made headlines a couple months ago. He didn’t miss a game due to injury last year, but was a frequent presence on the injury report and often missed practices throughout the year. Sean McDermott voiced his concerns about Clay’s knee during a minicamp session in May, so it’s clear that it’s still an issue. More than his play, this is the biggest concern I have around Clay moving forward.

2017 Season Outlook: If Clay can play 16 games at 100% health, he’ll be a top player on the Bills. He’ll continue to be burdened by the expectations of a huge contract, of course, and he’ll still be graded largely based on his receiving stats even though his value extends beyond the passing game. He’ll probably be good for about 60 catches and 700 yards while remaining a top-five blocking tight end for a run-heavy offense and take all kinds of heat for being nowhere near the likes of Rob Gronkowski or Travis Kelce in the passing game.

The odds that he can play 16 games at 100% health, however, are zero. They’re not very high for any NFL player, especially a starter, but Clay’s already fighting an uphill battle. I won’t be the least bit surprised when he ends up on injured reserve, although when that’ll happen is anybody’s guess. Hopefully, he can provide some quality play before that happens.