Season in Review:
With as strong a career as Dallas Clark has had, it's hard to believe this was his first Pro Bowl selection. That can be attributed in part to a traditionally-strong cream of the crop among AFC tight ends, as Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez were perennial selections. But with Gonzalez — along with former Brown Kellen Winslow — now in the NFC, it was finally Clark's time.
No one could say, however, that he was a default choice. By any standard, he had a phenomenal year and was deserving of his selection to the Pro Bowl and also the AP All-Pro Team, recognizing him as the top tight end in the league in 2009.
The numbers are compelling: he caught 100 passes and became just the second tight end in history to accomplish that. His 1,1006 yards were the best of his career (and broke his own club record) and the first time he went over the 1,000-yard plateau. His 10 touchdowns were the second-highest single-season total of his career (he had 11 in 2007) and he had his best career game, in terms of both yards and receptions, in 2009 — he went for 183 yards in a "Monday Night Football" win over Miami (a game in which he also tied his career-long play with an 80-yard TD) and had 14 catches against Houston in November, tying Marvin Harrison's single-game franchise reception record.
Clark has passed the great John Mackey for the franchise career receptions record by a tight end and pulled within reach of every franchise tight end record. He started all 19 games, moved into the top five in most postseason tight end categories and even broke the NFL record for career postseason receptions for a tight end, passing Jay Novacek. He also had his first three touchdown game, carried the ball twice for 11 yards and received the team's Man-of-the-Year award.
Simply put, he had one of the greatest seasons by a tight end in the history of the NFL, and laid the foundation, with a few more strong seasons, for potential Hall of Fame consideration when his career is over.
While Clark was prolific, the Colts got marginal production out of the other four tight ends on the roster. Robinson started 10 games at H-back, but caught just nine passes for 62 yards. Tamme had just three catches for 35 yards, and Cloherty was active for only one game, making a single catch for two yards.
Santi had one game of note: a six-catch, 80-yard performance at Baltimore. But aside from that game, he contributed only two other catches on the season and was placed on season-ending injured reserve for the second year in a row.
In fact, Robinson, Tamme and Santi all spent considerable time on the injury report this season, although Tamme did appear in 15 games and Robinson in 13. Santi started two games but appeared in only three.
As detailed above, Clark is a constant threat in the passing game and one of Peyton Manning's most reliable targets. He makes tough catches in small windows, is a good runner in the open field, and his agility with the ball in his hands has surprised many a defensive back. He doesn't go down easily and presents matchup problems for nearly every coverage unit in the league.
Clark is not an overpowering blocker, but has a strong knowledge of the offense and is usually able to get the job done when he is asked to block. Robinson and Santi can bring value to the team as more traditional tight ends/H-backs, blocking and serving as safety valves when needed.
Despite his designated role, Robinson was not as effective as he needed to be at times, and the Colts got away from the H-back alignment as the season went on, preferring a three-wide look with Clark in a traditional tight end alignment and Austin Collie as a slot receiver.
Robinson lacks agility and is not a natural pass-catcher, and in fact can look downright uncomfortable in patterns. Santi and Tamme both have more potential as pass-catchers, but simply haven't gotten enough time on the field to be comfortable with the pace of the game. Santi made a costly fumble in his big game at Baltimore and Tamme failed to secure a fumble that the Jets recovered for a touchdown in Week 16.
That's not a damning indictment of those two players, as all second-year players — as well as seasoned veterans — make mistakes. But two years after they were drafted, the Colts don't really know what they have in the two young tight ends, and no doubt would prefer them to be further along in their development.
Clark is under contract through 2013, so the future looks bright for the position. He should continue to produce at a high level for the next several seasons.
Beyond that, much is unknown. Santi, Tamme and Robinson, in that order, have the potential to make a significant contribution to this team, but one or more of them needs to stand up, define their role, and win a job for that to happen. That means staying injury-free and doing what is asked, whether that means blocking or receiving. Cloherty is in the same board, but will have to climb the depth chart and needs a stellar offseason if he wants to make the roster this fall.
All that said, the position is not one of glaring need for the Colts, and they are unlikely to make a move in free agency to bolster their current stable of tight ends. The ones at the top of the list — like Owen Daniels, Ben Watson, Tony Scheffler and Bo Scaife — aren't going to fit in an offense where they would be, at best, a fourth or fifth option, and the middle and bottom of the list isn't an upgrade from the players already on the roster.
Looking to the draft, the Colts have more pressing needs, but Bill Polian is always looking to upgrade the offense, so don't rule out a second-day pick. Click here for a list of Scout.com's top tight end prospects.
The real dilemma would come if Clark were to suffer a serious injury. At that point, the Colts would have to rely on untested talent at the position and lose a serious threat in their passing game. That's not to say the Colts couldn't make up for the loss — they fared just fine without Marvin Harrison and Anthony Gonzalez in 2009 — but it's a scenario they would rather not face.
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