With this series, I'm writing about what does not worry me as we head into the 2012 season. I obsess over all other sorts of issues (the secondary, the negative perception of the fanbase, lack of ticket sales, the crazy owner, etc.), but I don't write enough about the stuff that doesn't have me losing sleep. We started with the offensive line. Now, we move to the tight ends.
The Old Guys Are Gone
Dallas Clark may go down as the greatest tight end in Colts franchise history. Please know that me saying that likely has prompted a few old timers sit up in their chairs with a Now wait a minute, Mr. Wells! style reaction. If anyone wants to defy me and say that Mr. John Mackey is the greatest TE in Colts history, I won't dispute that. Mackey was one of the most unique players, and people, this league ever saw. We owe much of our modern game to his vision, both as a Colt and as a union leader. His decline later in life is also an example (at least, for me) of how important this concussion stuff is.
I personally rank Dallas higher because he is, in many ways, the prototype for the modern NFL tight end. Guys like Rob Gronkowski are new age clones of Dallas Clark; an attempt by Bill Belichick to use a Clark-style TE against his opponents the same way the Colts terrorized Belichick's defenses with Clark (see 2007 AFC Championship Game).
However, like all things in this spinning, blue rock that's third in line from the sun, Dallas got old. While 33 is, by no means, an old age today (I'm 35, and I feel great), it is ancient in football years. Clark has also been slowed by injuries over his career, including a number of concussions (I count two, but it is likely more) and a freakish wrist injury that cost him most of the 2010 season. He has reportedly not recovered from that injury, and it is effecting his ability to do what he was so brilliant at for 8 years in Indianapolis: Catch the football.
Thus, Dallas had to go. Cold-blooded business, folks. How it is.
The other "name" TE on the roster last year was Jacob Tamme. Tamme's value was more as a special teams player than a fulltime TE. I'd call him solid as a route-runner and receiver. Nothing great. Nothing flashy. Solid.
He is also an excellent special teams gunner and can work as a long snapper. Of all the free agents the Colts lost last year, Tamme is the one I think got away. This new era Colts could have used him, and Peyton Manning will most certainly target him in Denver. When Clark went down with his wrist injury in 2010, Manning hit Tamme for 67 catches, 631 yards, and 4 TDs.
The other departed (or, as they say in Boston, DaPAWTED) tight end is Brody Eldridge, a 5th round pick of the Colts in 2010 and a player that new general manager Ryan Grigson did not think highly of. I remember doing a few radio gigs for some Oklahoma and Texas stations after the '10 draft, and on each show I was told by local sports people there that Eldridge was going to be a real steal. He was tough (had to play center his senior years at Oklahoma because of injuries), durable, could block the horns off a bull, and was surprisingly good catching the football.
In the NFL, he was unfortunately injury-prone, sparsely used as the in-line blocker he was intended to be, and caught a total of 16 balls for 84 yards in two seasons.
Eldridge was let go shortly after the NFL Draft (and shortly after Ryan Grigson practically insulted Eldridge during his second day presser during the draft).
Of all these players lost, it is Tamme that I consider the only one worth keeping. He signed a three-year deal with Denver for $9 million. For a guy of Tamme's versatile skills, that's not overpaying. He's also 27, entering the prime of his career.
However, even though keeping Tamme would have helped the Colts, it's tough to get mad over Grigson letting him walk, especially when you consider who they got to replace him, Clark, and the others at the TE position.
The New Guys Are Here
I won't rehash what we already have written about extensively. I'll just say that the Colts drafted two tights back-to-back in the 2012 NFL Draft, and both of them are outstanding and unique players that bring even more talent and versatility to this Colts team than the duo of Clark and Tamme did.
Like Gronkowski in New England, Colts second round pick Coby Fleener is a Dallas Clark clone. Now, by "clone" I do not mean they have an exact same body type. Fleener is two inches taller, ten pounds lighter, has a 37′ inch vertical leap, and ran a 4.45 40 at his Pro Day. Clark isn't that freakish. Hell, Gronk isn't even that freakish. Tight ends aren't supposed to be that fast, that dynamic. However, just like Clark in the 2000s, Fleener will be a match-up nightmare in the modern NFL. Unlike previous seasons, safeties cannot spear TEs as they run routes up the seams. Now-retired safety John Lynch made his entire career doing this type of dirty play, and once he did it to Dallas Clark just prior to a playoff game.
No more. Those plays get you fined and suspended these days. Thus, a fast TE is a real weapon for NFL offenses today.
If you presented me with a rookie Dallas Clark (circa 2003) and Coby Fleener today and said, OK, who's your pick? I'd go Fleener. No disrespect to Dallas. I think he's the best, but 6'6 TEs that run faster than many WRs are unique difference makers in 2012, just as Dallas was a unique difference maker when he first came into the league compared to one-time Colts TE Marcus Pollard.
Dwayne Allen is the other TE the Colts snagged in the draft, No. 64 overall. I was critical of the pick when it was made (as were many others), but that wasn't a negative reflection on Allen. Unlike Fleener, Gronk, or Clark, Allen is a more traditional TE. Ryan Grigson described him as "clean" when he drafted him, which means that Allen has very few weaknesses to his game. Fleener likely will struggle block along the line. Hell, he probably can't block at this level, period. That isn't his skills set. His job is to catch touchdowns and torch the secondary.
Allen's job will be to do everything else.
Other tight ends on the roster include Dominique Jones, Kyle Miller, and Andre Smith. None of these guys have more than three years experience. Miller is an undrafted rookie out of Mount Union (Pierre Garcon's old school), and Jones played in the Indoor Football League (IFL) last season. Smith, undrafted out of Virginia Tech, played for the Bears last year. He has yet to catch a pass in an NFL regular season game.
Oh, and the Colts have the greatest TE in the universe who never actually plays TE... Justin Snow. Snow has been the long snapper for 12 years. He's never missed a game, and the only snap I've ever seen him send over the head of the punter was in the AFC Championship Game in 2004. Hard to blame him for that, though. The Colts didn't punt the ball at all in the two previous playoff games they won prior to that AFCCG. Snow can stay the Colts LS for as long as he wants, as far as I'm concerned.
Why I'm Not Losing Sleep
I'm not losing sleep because this group of TEs is better than anything we've had in Indy since 2009. Dallas Clark is injury-riddled and past his prime. Eldridge was nothing special. Tamme is good and versatile, but if I had to pick between playing Tamme (at $3 mill a year) and Dwayne Allen, it's Allen. Easy.
Also, I personally like the idea of building the offense around the TEs. The Colts still need flankers on the outside who can take the top off, and maybe a guy like Donnie Avery, T.Y. Hilton, or LaVon Brazill can provide that. Should the Steelers fail to reach a long-term deal with RFA Mike Wallace, the Colts will certainly have the cap space to sign him next offseason (and Wallace would DEFINITELY provide speed on the outside).
Regardless, building around QB Andrew Luck, Fleener, and Allen is a good plan going forward. The Colts have some dynamic playmakers at TE, and I'm looking forward to seeing them in action on Sundays.