Now that we've covered the offensive line (and Eric has mirrored me with the defensive line), let's move on to the tight end position, certainly one of the bigger stories of the 2010 season.
2010 saw Dallas Clark coming off his first-ever Pro Bowl, a record-breaking year...and promptly ending his season on an awkward LaRon Landry tackle six weeks into the season. A huge question obviously emerged: how would the Colts manage to replace a player like Clark, a player who broke records previously owned by Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey? How could the Colts possibly move on without Peyton Manning's ultimate safety blanket, the reliable hybrid receiver who has always managed to give defenses fits and force coordinators into more coverage looks than they ever hoped to use?
The Colts answered by turning to Clark's backup, Jacob Tamme. Whether those questions were answered or not, we'll examine after the jump.
1. Dallas Clark
Until his Week Six wrist injury, Clark had proved just as dangerous a weapon as ever. Prior to landing on injured reserve, Clark had managed 37 receptions for 347 yards and three touchdowns on the year, including an absolute beauty against the New York Giants where Clark simply beat the safety and Manning lofted a 50-yard bomb right over his shoulder and into his lap on a fake draw play.
Now, Clark was still prone to the occasional drop, but that's not out of the norm for Clark -- who seems to make all the insanely difficult grabs but botch some gimmes -- nor was it unusual for a receiving corps that, to a man, seemed to drop a ridiculously-high amount of on-target passes this year. And it would be a stretch to say that Clark was necessarily setting the NFL ablaze with his stats; his presence was honestly more threatening than his numbers, as Austin Collie seemed to eat up all the early season middle-of-the-field stats. But once Clark went out of the lineup, we really saw -- as if we ever doubted -- how valuable he was.
We'll talk about Clark's replacement in a moment, but it was worth noting that the Colts were much more limited with Clark in a cast. Though nobody will confuse him for Brandon Manumaleuna or any blocking specialist, Clark is an above-average blocking tight end. And if you consider that he's primarily a receiving threat, he's pretty darn good in that department. When Clark was forced out of the lineup, blocking became an issue at the tight end position and playcalling was consequentially limited. Also, Clark has a certain rapport with Manning that just can't be duplicated by any guy putting on some pads, even if that guy has been with the Colts for a few years.
Clark's overall performance assessment may have been incomplete for 2010, but it was obvious that the Colts missed him, and missed him a lot, when he injured his wrist.
2. Jacob Tamme
Few fans expected Tamme to have as good a season as he did, and let's face it: if somebody were to tell you in training camp that Tamme would have 67 catches for 631 yards and four touchdowns on the year, you would have slapped a strait-jacket on them and hauled them off to the asylum. Tamme seemingly came out of nowhere to become a top-flight fantasy tight end this year and put up some big numbers in big games.
But did that necessarily make the transition from Clark to Tamme seamless?
Not really. For as good a receiver as Tamme was, he was still a fairly lousy blocker. Now, none of that is meant to disparage Tamme. The former University of Kentucky star far exceeded anyone's preseason expectations and held serve with some of the league's starting tight ends despite being a rarely-used reserved forced into a featured role. For as rough and sudden as the transition was, and make no mistake the switch from Clark to Tamme came about like a speeding motorist slamming his brakes and veering off toward an exit ramp while clipping the collision barrels, Tamme played out of his mind and did everything in his power to keep a struggling offense churning along.
For as courageous as Tamme's 2010 year was, and rest assured that he played most of the season injured, I would still hesitate to call it flawless. Beyond the blocking issues, Tamme also had a few key drops on the year and seemed to have stretches where he would struggle catching the ball. These stretches weren't ever long enough to raise concern, but he did have some drops that could have moved the sticks -- especially in the Colts' wildcard loss -- and could, like every receiver on the roster, stand to improve in that area.
Overall, though, Tamme played hurt and played like he didn't know he was supposed to be a backup. You really couldn't ask for much more from him.
3. Brody Eldridge
Eldridge was welcomed to the Colts as the designated blocking tight end, the first such player since Ben Hartsock didn't work out for Indy (but magically worked out for Tennessee and New York) in 2004. The former Sooner was expected to be the featured blocking tight end and H-back and was even rumored in camp to be a candidate for fullback.
Unfortunately for Eldridge, his season never really got on track. An early rib injury sidelined him for several games, and once he returned, he was never really the same. In those first few games, we saw glimpses on the blocking specialist we were promised as early as rookie camp. Eldridge's blocking was a huge reason that Joseph Addai and Donald Brown ran wild on the New York Giants in Week Two. He seemed to be, until his injury, that missing ingredient from the tight end position: a real, gritty, designated blocker.
Injuries obviously threw off Eldridge's season to the point where it's difficult to evaluate in retrospect, but I can confidently say that his receiving skills did not come as advertised. Training camp reports had him pegged as a Ben Utecht-esque receiver, a guy defenses would forget about but Manning would look toward when open and make opponents pay. Those hopes never came to fruition. Eldridge looked horrendous as a receiver, finishing the year with five catches for 39 yards. He dropped passes that hit him right in the hands, in the open flats, and more infamously was responsible for Manning's first interception of the year: a goal-line catch where Eldridge got rocked and dropped the ball right into the safety's hands.
Eldridge's blocking came as advertised and is probably where it needs to be going forward, but the kid really has to improve his receiving skills. They aren't good. If he can do that, he stands a good chance of getting more than a few cheap completions and/or touchdowns when defenses are too busy focusing on Collie, Clark and the wideouts too direct coverage toward a blocking tight end sneaking up the seam.
4. Jacques McClendon
I only listed McClendon because I figured there would be comments, whether serious or not, asking where he was on the list had I left him off.
I'm not really sure what to say about McClendon. He was awkwardly forced into a tight end position when Clark and Eldridge were both hurting, and really didn't do anything at the position. No catches, though we didn't expect that to be the case, and no real notable demonstrations of blocking.
Thankfully, we probably don't have to worry about McClendon at tight end as we look toward 2011.
5. Gijon Robinson
Not to a jerk, but how bad is Robinson? Brought back after Clark's injuries, Robinson still couldn't see the field and ended the year with less of an impact in the receiving game than Eldridge. There's a reason this guy was not on the roster at first, folks: he's not a good player. You don't want to pile on a guy who tries and plays as well as he can, but Robinson isn't a good player and really shouldn't be on the Colts next year. If he is, it's because there are significant injuries at the tight end position and the Colts didn't manage to unearth any other prospects.
The tight end position should be one of strength going forward. Its depth was tested in 2010 and blocking at the position was lacking at times, but a group of Clark, Tamme and Eldridge should be more than adequate in 2011. In fact, if both Clark and Tamme are healthy next year, Tamme likely goes back to the bench.
The biggest takeaway for next year is that, if all goes well and he continues to trend toward recovery in rehab, Clark will be back in 2011. You can't overstate the importance of Clark's return. With a healthy Clark, the Colts' offense is nearly unstoppable. He is Manning's ultimate safety blanket and an incredibly clutch receiver. The Colts must feel great to know that they've got Tamme on the bench and know what the young player is capable of doing, but ultimately this is the Dallas Clark story, and I'd expect his return to generate quite a loud applause from the crowd during the Colts' home opener.
Even considering Bill Polian's draft day oddities, don't expect the Colts to draft a tight end this year, or target one in free agency.