Clay was coming off of a promising rookie campaign in 2011 during which the hybrid tight end/fullback caught 16 passes for 233 yards and three touchdowns. He knew he was going to have to weather the challenge of learning his second different NFL offense in as many years under new offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, but the Arkansas native felt up to the challenge.
“I’d say it was a little up-and-down going into it,” Clay said. “It didn’t go completely like I wanted it to go but you learn from everything that happened. Ending the way I did with the injury, I feel like it’s going to do nothing but make me stronger and I feel like I’ll come back a thousands time stronger this year.”
Training camp proved to be an eye-opener for Clay, both when it came to Sherman’s style and the offensive terminology and the style of Head Coach Joe Philbin. He struggled early on in practice and failed to produce much on the field until catching three passes for 35 yards, including a 24-yarder, at Cincinnati in a 17-13 win in Week 5. Clay’s highlight moment came at Indianapolis against the Colts when he reeled in a 31-yard touchdown from rookie quarterback
Now that he better understands his role in Sherman’s offense and the nuances of the scheme, Clay should be more comfortable come July when training camp opens. He also has a better feel for how Tannehill throws the ball and where he needs to be on the field, giving him more confidence this time around.
“I feel like at times during the year we were still feeling each other out, but I feel like we’ve got a pretty good understanding of each other,” Clay said. “So I kind of know what to expect, so going into camp I have a pretty good idea of how I’m being used. I just look forward to getting back going.”
Something that else that should benefit Clay is the ever-changing role of tight ends around the league and the evolution of the position. Thanks to the recent success of New England’s Rob Gronkowski, San Francisco’s Vernon Davis, New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham and others, the tight end has become a much bigger part of the passing game.
Clay, at 6-foot-3 and 239 pounds, is not built like those players but bares a closer resemblance to the other tight end on the Patriots, Aaron Hernandez. His running background has made it easier to line him up in the backfield at fullback periodically and serve as an extra blocker, but he did catch 189 passes for 2,544 yards and 28 touchdowns at Tulsa.
“In college I didn’t too much of what those guys are doing, so normally when you saw it was more guys’ hand in the ground,” said Clay, who admittedly has progressed more in his blocking since his rookie year. “But then you come here and you see the Jimmy Grahams and these athletic guys and they completely changed the whole system. It’s just a position where you have to be really athletic and I believe it does benefit me more as a player because I can use my speed and quickness. At the same time I believe we have a lot of coaches that are real good at putting players in a position to succeed.”
The majority of Clay’s offseason has been devoted to rehabbing the torn ligaments in his knee, so he has not gone on any vacations or done any other extracurricular activities. He is focusing on getting the strength back in his knee and becoming 100 percent again so that he can become a serious contributor to the offense.
Last week’s re-signing of wide receiver
“I feel like that every year, to be honest with you, that this will be the year and it’s just a matter of going out there and doing it,” Clay said. “It’s just a matter of going out there and preparing every week like it’s your last, so that’s the plan. Having that chemistry with Ryan is big, and especially having a guy who works as hard as he does. I think this is going to be a big year.”