FOXBOROUGH — When is a tight end no longer a tight end?
That question has been the subject of big contractual debates between the New Orleans Saints and Jimmy Graham, and between the Green Bay Packers and Jermichael Finley, but the uncertain positional designation may be a focal point for the New England Patriots this week as they prepare to take on the Miami Dolphins and tight end Charles Clay.
The 6-foot-3, 255-pound Clay is a tight end in name only. He lines up all over the field — in the backfield as a fullback, as an in-line tight end, and out wide as a receiver — and he's a threat from every spot.
"It's tough because he's always out there in a bunch of different positions for them," said safety Devin McCourty, "and at every position, he's used as a weapon for them. So I think that's going to be key, just awareness of where he's at on the field, and then how the defense plays to him, because in every defense, we want to know where he's at. It's not just one guy, it's really as a defense, we need to know where he's at."
Clay participated on 868 snaps for the Dolphins in 2013, according to stats website Pro Football Focus. Of those snaps, he ran a route 478 times, stayed at home as a blocker 383 times (278 run-blocking, 105 pass-blocking), and ran the ball seven times.
The snap count may be close to an even split, but he is at his most effective in the passing game. The versatile Clay has become a go-to option for quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who targeted Clay 98 times in 2013 and connected on 69 passes for 759 yards and six touchdowns. For his efforts, Clay finished third on the team in receptions, but his 70.4 catch rate was highest on the team among all wide receivers and tight ends.
"He's an all-around player," Tannehill said of Clay. "I didn't know much about him when I got here. My first year we didn't really utilize him for his athleticism and the playmaker that he is. We saw it last year, we got to see matching him up against safeties, and linebackers singling him up. We like that matchup. We feel like he's going to win any one-on-one matchup with the linebacker, safety, and sometimes corner."
Regardless of who is matched up Clay, the versatile tight end is capable of making it a mismatch.
On this play against the Baltimore Ravens, Clay lined up as the 'X' receiver (out wide, lined up on the line of scrimmage). Tannehill didn't even pretend to look the other direction, instead staring at the left side of the field while the tight end ran a fade route into the end zone. The ball placement was perfect, with a back-shoulder strike where only Clay could get his hands on the ball. Clay was able to tap his feet in-bounds for the score.
The Patriots clearly respect Clay's ability, and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said he thinks Clay is "one of the most underrated tight ends in the game".
He may be underrated in some ways, but the Patriots don't underrate him in the slightest. In fact, they went out of their way to neutralize him in the second meeting last year, when cornerback Aqib Talib matched up with Clay on a consistent basis. The Patriots held Clay to one catch for six yards, his lowest single-game output of the 2013 season.
It remains to be seen whether the Patriots will employ the same strategy again this time around.
"We've obviously studied that [game] extremely hard," said head coach Joe Philbin. "But as you mentioned, we're a little bit different. We have different players lining up then we did on December 15th. They have a lot of different players lining up then they had on December 15th. In the preseason, we certainly studied a lot of that, but, let's face it, there are a lot of things that could happen. We're going to have to do a great job as a staff on game day kind of getting a glimpse of how they're playing us and how they're utilizing their personnel, and how we can create mismatches there."
The Patriots were seen in a unique defensive package this preseason, with a third cornerback lined up as the second safety opposite Devin McCourty. The Patriots could use a package like this to neutralize Clay with a corner.
It doesn't have to be a defensive back, either. Linebacker Jamie Collins is one of the faster, more athletic linebackers on the roster and could draw Clay in coverage. He was seen moving all over the field to cover tight ends toward the end of last season, including against the Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs to cover tight end Coby Fleener.
It's possible that the Dolphins could create mismatches with Clay regardless of where he lines up or how the Patriots utilize their defensive personnel, but because he moves around so much, it's incumbent upon the Patriots to account for Clay on every play.