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Dallas Clark and the Future of Indy at Tight End

With the launch of a bold rebuilding phase from our almighty leader and owner, Jim "Balls of Steel" Irsay, the future of many still dangle in the balance.

First, we saw the dismissal of Bill and Chris Polian – Bill, the face of the franchise, internally, for what seemed like a million years – that would set the stage to completely alter the foundation upon which the Colts’ top-flight fundamentals were nurtured.

Irsay felt the dismissal of the Polians was necessary to implement a future with a fresh and revised direction.

Now, with the new league year only three months away, many of our favorite Colts could find that their best opportunity to win another ring might reside at another destination. They might also come to the realization that their services will no longer be rendered complimentary to the future development of this team.

All bets are off, folks.

Mr. Irsay's new general manager will need to make a decision on a multitude of primo talents that made this franchise what it is. Irsay will have veto power and will decide the fate of the first big elephant in the room Peyton Manning. Manning’s future is fairly simple though. If he's healthy, he's a Colt for life, according to Irsay.

However, the destinies of Indianapolis treasures Reggie Wayne, Robert Mathis, Dallas Clark, among others, aren’t so perceivably crystal. They unlike Manning will be at the mercy of the changing times.

To try and quickly defend Mathis and Wayne, they both have actually made a strong case to be retained, in my opinion. Despite a pathetic season for the team, they still produced. Wayne aka "Throw Left", who provided a memory that many of us will never forget in possibly his last game as a Colt, reminded us of why we have come to love him and his dependability in the clutch. All love aside, he also finished the season with 960 yards, 4 touchdowns, and a better per catch average than in 2010. Even in his old age, it appears he still has some gas left in the tank.

Staggering numbers? No. But they’re not horrific when you consider the awesome trio of Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter, and Dan Orlovsky that threw to him all season.

Mathis wasn't an All-Pro, but he came up with 9.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, a Pro Bowl nod (Alternate or not.), and had a better season than the other half of the Colts quarterback-crushing duo, Dwight Freeney.

But what about our soon-to-be 33-year-old, All-Pro tight end, Dallas Clark?

For starters, Clark is one forgettable season removed from a freakish wrist injury that had some wondering if he’d ever be, well, Dallas Clark again.

Despite his return in 2011, Clark was incapable of avoiding the sideline for an extended period of time, again; missing five more games this season, after missing ten during 2010.

But did he make up for his missed time with stellar production? Not exactly. Clark’s 2011 numbers totaled 34 receptions, 352 yards, and 2 touchdowns. And for the sake of comparison, his 2010 numbers were almost identical even though he missed five more games.

In Clark’s defense, his production in 2011 undoubtedly suffered from a lack of Peyton Manning. Yes, I know Wayne still found a way to be semi-productive sans Manning. Regardless, it's still really hard for me to dwell on anything 2011 related. When Clark actually took the field in a healthy state, I believe he showed that he still possessed "it" in bits and pieces. His routes looked crisp and he made some spectacular catches that were reminiscent of the old Dallas Clark.

All opinions aside, this is still the NFL. Clark's future will be decided by value and value alone. While I don't think it, it being Clark's premature departure, will happen, stranger things have happened.

If a decision regarding Clark's future is on the radar for the front office, they will be greeted with multiple key factors to consider. Age is certainly one (Clark will be 33 in June.), injury history is probably the most important (Two back-to-back injury-riddled seasons.), and of course the mother of all decisions, business. (Not just the financial side, either.) In this sometimes brutal league that we call the NFL, the "hero" or "legend" label does not grant immunity in the face of expensive contracts and valuable business opportunities. Clark will always be remembered as one of the great Colts. That's guaranteed. But his value to this team and his worth of a $4.53 million salary fifth among tight ends in the upcoming 2012 season, according to Spotrac is realistically the only thing that will keep him in a Colts jersey.

So how can we try and project Clark's value in 2012 and beyond?

A talent that transcended the game.

Firstly, Clark’s natural talent at the position has often been "above the rim". Before getting hurt in 2010, Clark was fifth in catches among all receivers for 2009, leading him to a second consecutive All-Pro selection. Tight end play that rivaled Clark’s was something increasingly unique. Now, with the continual development of offenses that thrive off the presence of sure-handed, superstar, game-changers at the position, it continues to be further revolutionized and increasingly important for an explosive offense. Not complimentary, but necessary.

The formula for finding such talent? Try and sign an physical specimen with basketball talent, teach him the ropes, and hope you profit.

If you consider the quality of NFL tight ends in 2011, it's a totally new age. Gifted players at the position have busted through all over the place during the last two seasons including Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Vernon Davis, Anthony Hernandez, Marcedes Lewis, Jermichael Finley, Owen Daniels, Fred Davis, Ed Dickson, Jake Ballard, Brandon Pettigrew, Jared Cook, and on and on. The heavy implementation of the position into the passing game has completely redefined their impact and has opened up stat lines that were once something identifiable with only a wide receiver. Graham and Gronkowski were both in the top five of catches among all receivers. They are the most important targets for their respective quarterbacks. Put simply, the stars of the 2000s like Clark, Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, and Jason Witten (There are others, but you get the point.) are fading as a true oddity. There have always been pass-catching tight ends, but the volume continues to increase. Clark and others were part of a developing formula that essentially paved the way for these youngsters.

They are arguably still the best at what they do, as well.

The Manning relationship can transfer to Luck.

Among his obvious game-changing talent, Clark’s chemistry with Manning is another factor that can only prolong his future as a Colt. Manning to Clark is one of the most important connections for this offense. If Manning is back in 2012, Clark isn’t going anywhere. That much is obvious. But what if Manning is no longer in the cards for the Colts?

Clark’s importance within the offense would remain equal, if not greater, with Andrew Luck at quarterback. His ability to mentor a young and inexperienced Luck would only further help his cause to remain a valuable asset.

A veteran tight end can be a young quarterback’s best friend. A comforting blanket, if you will. Cam Newton is a good example of such. With the support of two experienced tight ends in Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen, Newton has seen himself rapidly develop into one of the most threatening players in the game. His ability to lean on these two to free up Steve Smith led to the Panthers 2011 design of a top-tier offense that lit up scoreboards, all year. If Newton is thanking anyone in his Rookie of the Year acceptance speech, it’ll be these guys and Rob Chudzinski for laying the framework.

So why couldn't Clark do the same for Luck?

Trying to replace a legend, now injury-prone, sooner or later.

Finally, there’s the business side to Clark's future.

Salary-wise, he will be paid as a top five tight end. Therefore, he should produce like a top five tight end. There's isn't much financially that will really count against Clark, besides his rate of salary.

However, if new GM Ryan Grigson decides to go full speed ahead with a youth movement Philly transitioned to a younger roster Clark’s theoretical replacement could be had in the draft or with the simple re-signing of free agent Jacob Tamme. Or both.

Tamme not only comes with great upside at the age of 26, but he will also be very affordable. (Vet minimum was $810,000 this year.) He also has arguably proven that he can bring production that rivals or at least reasonably compares to Clark's. His catching and route running abilities are clearly not as fundamentally sound or impressive, when compared to Clark’s, but they get the job done. Tamme possesses a valuable skill set that allows him to excel when called upon as seen in 2010. He can be plugged into the same situations as Clark and come away with an exceptionally favorable result. If utilized properly, Manning or Luck quarterbacking, he will be effective and put up impressive stats.

If we go the other route and take a look at a prospect in the upcoming draft, one of Andrew Luck’s biggest targets from Stanford will accompany him to the NFL in 2012 tight end, Coby Fleener.

Fleener isn't the best projected tight end available in the draft and there are obvious defensive concerns that should come first.

Trust me I didn't forget about our awful secondary.

Still, Fleener is worth considering if he can be obtained in a favorable round.

In 2011, Fleener had 34 receptions for 667 yards, 10 touchdowns, and a stout 19.6 per catch average. Fleener has been well coached (Jim Harbaugh, anyone?) and should have no problem transitioning into a next-level offense. He's also been great at exploiting the middle of the field and has developed into an exceptional blocker. Oh, and did I mention that he was one of Luck’s primary targets? The chemistry and predictable tendencies within the quarterback and tight end relationship have had time to develop.

Honestly, there couldn’t be a better time to draft a stout physical specimen (6’6", 244lbs) to be the future for the Colts at tight end.

He's not done.

All things considered, Clark's developing vulnerability to injury is probably the most sensible concern, especially at his age. But if I could pick anyone to mentor and "blanket" a fledgling Luck, beyond Manning, it would be a classy, well-respected, and immensely talented Colt like Clark.

I think Clark's possible tutelage for the Colts projected #1 draft pick, his importance to Manning, along with the incredible skills and experience that he brings to the field, will ultimately overcome any future injury concerns. Clark should at least be granted another year in Indianapolis to prove that he can stay healthy.

Clark is not only a valuable asset to this team, on and off the field, but I think we'd all like to give #44 the opportunity to get fully healthy and retire a Colt.

He's earned, as much.