Colts fans breathed a huge sigh of relief when the short-lived franchising of Dallas Clark came to a speedy conclusion with a happy ending late Wednesday. However, Bill Polian still faces two tough decisions regarding the future of Clark's backups: Restricted free agents Ben Utecht and Bryan Fletcher.
Neither player did a great deal to distinguish themselves in 2007, as Utecht's production declined — 37 receptions in 2006 to 31 in 2007 — and Fletcher averaged an anemic 7.9 yards per catch.
Utecht caught more passes, played more snaps, and was on the field when Clark wasn't able to go, but Fletcher may be the player to receive a tender.
As Ed Thompson pointed out, Indianapolis can place the $927,000 tender on Fletcher and still get something in return if another team signs him and the Colts choose not to match the offer, since Fletcher was originally drafted in the sixth round, whereas Utecht was an undrafted free agent and the Colts would get no compensation for the minimum tender.
Dallas Clark and Bryan Fletcher
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Fletcher turns 29 in March, Utecht 27 in June. Youth usually wins out in situations like this, but it bears mentioning that Indianapolis spoke with a number of tight ends at the Senior Bowl, including Martin Rucker, Brad Cottam, and Jacob Tamme. Cottam and Rucker look like first-day prospects and Tamme might sneak into the fourth round.
However, Rucker's stock may be falling, since he didn't prove himself to be a very ferocious blocker in Mobile and will not work out at the Combine due to a hamstring injury. Whoever the Colts decide to draft, that player will most likely be slotted into the top backup position for 2009, if not 2008, since Fletcher and Utecht do not necessarily present the stiffest level of competition.
In that situation, assuming that Fletcher and Utecht are retained, Indianapolis would go into camp with four tight ends on the roster, but would surely head into to the regular season with three. And, there is the small matter of Gijon Robinson, who has certainly paid his dues on the practice squad.
Utecht breaks a tackle vs. Baltimore
AP Photo/Rob Carr
Five men, three roster spots. If the two RFAs do indeed stay through training camp, Polian is going to have an interesting decision on his hands.
It may not come to that, though, as the Colts control their own fate. If they tender both players at the lowest level of $927,000, both will probably garner attention from other teams, since the sacrifice required to sign them is very manageable.
Thompson also reports that Utecht would likely receive interest from the Vikings, since they are familiar with him from his days at the University of Minnesota.
Fletcher is a player with low mileage and versatility, since some free agent lists have him in the H-back category, some have him at fullback, and some have him at tight end. They could both be signed away, leaving Indianapolis with a lot of questions and only a 6th round pick to answer those questions.
But, with a glut of available free agent tight ends — Jeb Putzier, Alge Crumpler, and Bubba Franks were all recently released, with more cuts likely to follow — and a number of prospects that the Colts are interested in, the best strategy will be to tender them both and let the market sort it out.
If both men are signed away, the draft and free agency offer numerous affordable options. If one is signed away, that makes the post-training camp decision easier. If only one is signed, the best men will win and Indianapolis will be more than $1,854,000 richer in terms of depth.
A position of weakness may become a position of strength or it could become a position with more spots open than players to fill those spots. In all likelihood, tight end will be a position of strength, particularly with Clark at the top of the pecking order for the future. But there's a lot left to play out in this offseason.