A Game of Tag: Is Charles Clay Really Worth It for the Buffalo Bills?
To tag or not to tag is occasionally a question front offices have to ask themselves during the offseason. Less often do those decisions involve which type of tag to use. Most of the time, teams use the standard franchise tag to hold onto a player for another year after his contract has expired. Teams use the transition tag less often, which allows the original team a right of first refusal on a contract offer from any other team.
Between figuring out how to sign Ndamukong Suh and dumping just about every Jeff Ireland mistake, the Miami Dolphins placed the transition tag on tight end Charles Clay this offseason. The tag was set to pay Clay just over $7 million for one year, but left the door open for another team to offer Clay a contract.
That’s exactly what happened, as the Buffalo Bills reportedly offered Clay a five-year, $38 million contract on Tuesday night. Miami has five days to decide to match or let Clay go to Buffalo without receiving any compensation in return.
Clay By the Numbers
Clay was regarded as one of the top tight ends in this year’s free agent class behind Julius Thomas. Much of that is due to Clay’s potential though, and not the product he’s put on the field so far.
In 2014, he was just an average tight end by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric (read more about NEP in our glossary). Clay finished 18th overall in Reception NEP and came out less favorably on a per target basis -- among 44 tight ends with at least 30 targets, Clay ranked 31st in Reception NEP per target. Folks, he was worth the same as Clay Harbor on a per target basis (though Clay saw 49 more targets), and between the worth of Jared Cook and Mychal Rivera.
Those can be useful tight ends, but no one would be getting into a bidding war for those players if they were free agents right now. After all, St. Louis learned that the hard way with Cook.
In 2013, Clay was slightly better on a per target basis, but still not among the top tight ends in the league. He was 19th in Reception NEP per target, sharing value again with Jared Cook.
At the age of 25, Cook signed a five-year, $35.1 million contract with the Rams prior to the 2013 season, and while he’s had to deal with a wide range of quarterbacks -- not many of them good -- he hasn’t produced at the level his contract would have expected. The similarities between Clay and Cook may be concerning for his return on this contract.
It appears Miami is unlikely to match Buffalo’s offer because of the structure of the contract. The deal is heavily front loaded and includes massive guarantees to serve as much as a poison pill provision that can be included in an offer sheet these days. While this contract does not include an actual “poison pill” -- which were outlawed with the new CBA in 2011 -- it's set up financially to make it very difficult for the Dolphins to match financially.
$20 million of the $38 million over the five years in guaranteed. Per Spotrac.com, that would give Clay the third-highest guaranteed money for a tight end behind Julius Thomas and Jimmy Graham. $24.5 million of the contract will also be over the first two seasons, along with a $10 million roster bonus at the start of the 2016 season.
In order to make the Ndamukong Suh contract to work and be able to sign anyone else this offseason, the second year of Suh’s contract is the biggest on the books. He counts for just $6.1 million on Miami’s cap in 2015, but that balloons to $28.6 million in 2016. For the Dolphins to fit Suh and the first two years of the proposed Clay contract together -- along with either a fifth-year option or extension for Ryan Tannehill to hit the books in 2016 -- the front office will have to rearrange a bunch contracts a season after rearranging a bunch of contracts.
Fits on The Field
After Scott Chandler signed with the Patriots, Buffalo was left with 2013 seventh-round pick Chris Gragg and 2014 undrafted free agent Chris Manhertz alone on the depth chart at tight end. Buffalo clearly has a need at the position and sticking it to a division rival must have a nice feeling attached, but they didn’t have to go this far.
Buffalo would have a nice set of receiving weapons on paper, pairing Clay with Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and Percy Harvin. Then you realize Matt Cassel is the probable quarterback throwing those players the ball. Or that Chandler ranked 13th among tight ends last year in Reception NEP per target, and while his contract details with New England have yet to be announced, it’s unlikely it approaches $38 million. Clearly Clay can do other things with his versatility, but does that really equate to the additional money spent on the tight end?
If Miami chooses to not match the offer sheet, they're still set up pretty well at tight end for 2015. The Dolphins signed Jordan Cameron to a two-year, $15 million deal in hope he can stay healthy. Cameron only saw 48 targets last season, only playing in 10 games, but ranked 19th in Reception NEP per target. If Cameron can’t stay healthy, the Dolphins have third-year tight end Dion Sims, too. Sims also saw limited time on the field last year -- just 36 targets -- but was efficient in that time. His 0.72 Reception NEP per target was the 12th best among tight ends, and the same per target value of Zach Ertz.
Ideally, Miami would probably like to keep Clay, but placing the transition tag on him to begin with indicates they're open to the possibility of him not returning. They ended up getting a division rival to likely overpay and commit a significant amount a guaranteed money to just an OK player. The Bills probably thought they were sticking it to the Dolphins, but this deal has a much higher probability of the Bills sticking it to themselves.