For years, it seemed as if the Buffalo Bills were behind the times, lacking a true receiving threat at the tight end position. In recent seasons, the position has evolved from traditional blocking tight ends to athletic freaks that present a major mismatch between the hashes. During the 2015 Free Agency period, the Bills signed Charles Clay to a five-year deal worth $38 million. Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman had a history of featuring multiple tight ends in various roles during his time with the San Francisco 49ers and Clay was the ideal fit for his scheme.
Through the team’s first four games of the 2015 season, Clay has been a focal point of Buffalo’s offense, catching 21 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns. He’s used all over the field and constantly put in motion, so opposing defenses need to be aware of where he is at all times.
Below is a chart of where Clay has lined up on passing plays. “Y” is a traditional tight end that aligns next to the offensive tackle. “Detached” refers to a two-point stance, aligned behind the line of scrimmage. An “H-Back” alignment is any snap in which he’s aligned as a fullback or next to the quarterback in a pistol formation.
As you can see, Clay is a difficult player to game-plan for due to his constant movement throughout the formations. In addition to lining up in various positions, the constant motioning forces opposing defenders to show their hand, coverage-wise, allowing quarterback Tyrod Taylor to find potential mismatches before the snap.
Despite an offense that features talented wide receivers in Sammy Watkins, Percy Harvin and Robert Woods, Charles Clay leads the Bills with 29 targets in the passing game. His athleticism, speed and agility allow him to run a full route tree that threatens every level of a defense, and he’s strong and physical enough to get off press coverage and fight through traffic.
Most tight ends are limited to go routes, outs and hitches/curls, but as the chart below shows, that’s not the case for Clay, who shows off a nifty double move from an outside wide receiver position in the following play.
Clay is especially dangerous on intermediate-to-deep crossing routes, as well as posts and corners. He has the speed to get on top of linebackers in a hurry and changes direction quickly, which often results in a wide open target for Tyrod Taylor.
In the following play against the New York Giants, Clay runs a “7” or corner route from the “Y” tight end position. Matched up against linebacker J.T. Thomas, Clay gets a free release and accelerates vertically. Thomas gets caught peeking into the Bills’ backfield and gets turned around as Clay makes his break outside, gaining several yards of separation for an easy gain of 20 yards.
When facing zone coverage Clay is nearly unstoppable, as he shows a great feel for where the gaps will be and has speed that not many linebackers can match.
Later in the Giants game, Clay picks up another 24 yards on a deep crossing route. The Giants are in a Cover 2 look with the two deep safeties playing 20 yards off. The Bills are in “11” personnel- one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers. There’s two receivers to the top of the screen, while Clay and Percy Harvin are on the left of the formation.
The two outside receivers run go routes, which hold the Giants’ safeties deep, as Charles Clay runs a deep crosser. The slot receiver on the right of the formation runs a hitch, while the running back runs a curl. The route combination causes the middle linebacker to freeze for a split-second, but that’s all the time Clay needs to get on top of the linebackers and into the open field.
Those plays show Clay’s ability as a deep threat, but he’s a weapon in the short game as well, thanks to his toughness when fighting through traffic and his ability to create yards-after-the-catch, where his 97 yards are eighth-most among tight ends and his seven forced missed tackles rank 2nd. Below is a chart of Clay’s receptions on various routes.
Here against the Miami Dolphins, Clay runs a simple drag route. There’s a lot of traffic and he gets bumped by linebackers, but he fights through it and gains separation from linebacker Koa Misi, who misses the tackle as Clay catches the ball. He turns up field, shakes two defenders and walks into the end-zone for a 25-yard touchdown against his former team.
When he’s not the primary target, Clay still has a big impact on the Bills’ passing attack. Due to his speed, he’s an effective decoy to clear out safeties on go routes that open up underneath routes for his fellow receivers.
Greg Roman’s offense is centered around the power run game, where he wants to wear opponents down with formations that feature multiple tight ends, a fullback and extra offensive linemen. To play tight end in his offense, being a reliable blocker is a must and Charles Clay does not disappoint.
Whether he’s down-blocking from a three-point stance, lead blocking from the backfield or pulling across the formation, Clay has been pretty reliable for the Bills’ rushing attack that ranks 6th in the league, averaging 128.2 yards-per-game.
In the play below, Clay is lined up in the slot to the right of the formation. The Bills run a toss to the right and Clay blocks down to his left, delivering a blow to linebacker Erik Walden that opens up a lane for LeSean McCoy.
Against the Patriots, Clay showed his ability as a blocker from the traditional tight end position. Left guard Richie Incognito pulls to the left as a lead blocker, while Clay seals the edge, clearing a wide lane that springs McCoy for a gain of 12.
In addition to his ability as a run blocker, Clay also has value as a pass blocker in max-protection situations, as he proved against the Giants. He effectively chips the blitzer and releases to pick up the other pass rusher as right tackle Seantrel Henderson comes to provide help. Clay walks the rusher behind the pocket, allowing Tyrod Taylor to get the pass off cleanly.
There were many analysts and national media members that scoffed at the lucrative contract that the Bills awarded Charles Clay, considering that his best statistical season came in 2013 when he caught 69 passes for 759 yards and six touchdowns. Not exactly head-turning numbers.
The $38 million value of the contract made him the fourth-highest paid tight end in the league, trailing only Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham and Julius Thomas, while the $24.5 million in guaranteed money is the most at the position.
While it’s hard to fathom Clay having the impact that Gronkowski does with the Patriots, the Bills staff saw a player that fit exactly what they wanted for their offense and had a vision of how to use him. Through four games it’s looked like a smart decision, as he’s had a major impact in the passing game and has been a reliable blocker in the run game. For a franchise that’s lacked a real threat at the tight end position for the majority of its existence, it seems that the Bills finally have a player to help them attack defenses in ways that they haven’t previously been able to.