Third of a Position-by-Position Series of the Colts' Roster
INDIANAPOLIS – In the Colts' productive offense, Dallas Clark is among the keys.
Whatever his numbers in a given season or a game, the veteran tight end – a first-round selection in the 2003 NFL Draft – is crucial not only as a pass receiver, but as a blocker also. He is crucial lining up inside, and he is crucial when he lines up outside.
He is crucial in the backfield, too.
Which is why Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy didn't worry too much last month as the NFL's unrestricted free agency period approached with Clark still un-signed.
Clark is too much of a part of the Colts' offense. He's too much a part of the core.
Not re-signing him, Dungy said, was never really an option.
"We're explosive on offense when he's in there," Dungy said recently in an interview with Colts.com for this story on the team's tight ends, the third of a position-by-position series that will run throughout this month.
"That's the real key for us. We assumed it was going to be done. No one ever thought about life without Dallas."
Clark, entering his sixth NFL seasons, emerged as one of the NFL's top receiving tight ends during the Colts' run to Super Bowl XLI following the 2006 season, when he led all receivers in postseason receptions, catching 21 passes for 317 yards.
This past season, he continued that development, setting career-highs with 58 receptions for 616 yards and 11 touchdowns. The receptions and touchdowns totals set franchise seasonal position records.
Clark, like Colts two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Reggie Wayne, has improved each season, Dungy said, progressing steadily to become one of the NFL's best players at his position.
"He's another one who has gotten a little bit better every year," Dungy said. "We've learned more about how to use him and get the most out of him. When he has been healthy for us, he's an awfully imant piece to the offensive puzzle."
As is the case with Wayne, Dungy said the key to Clark's development is "desire and wanting to be good."
"It's just the way those guys work," Dungy said. "And it's the way they've kind of learned the offense and progressed. It's really that desire to work and wanting to be more productive every year."
The process of learning how best to use Clark in the offense, and his continued development in it, made his signing all the more important, Dungy said.
Because of Clark's versatility, and because of the different roles he plays, a younger tight end or even an elite-level veteran likely would have difficulty performing at a similar level in the Colts' scheme, Dungy said. Learning the offense – how to flex out and how to run-block in the Colts' scheme – is a lengthy process, Dungy said.
"It has taken him probably three years to get comfortable with that whole thing and all of the audibles and everything," Dungy said. "It's a process and he's right in his prime of the process right now."
Clark, in five NFL seasons, has caught 179 passes for 2,234 yards and 25 touchdowns – numbers that Dungy said belie his importance to the Colts' offense.
Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez, a perennial Pro Bowl selection, caught 99 passes for 1,172 yards and five touchdowns this past season, with San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates catching 75 for 984 and nine touchdowns and Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow, Jr., 82 for 1,106 yards and five touchdowns.
Those players, Dungy said, play in offenses with more of a focus on the tight end. With the Colts, wide receivers Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison and Anthony Gonzalez – as well as running back Joseph Addai – are used extensively in the passing offense.
"He's never going to have the Antonio Gates/Gonzalez-type numbers, because our offense isn't structured that way," Dungy said. "We have three receivers we throw to a lot, and the tight end. He makes a lot happen."
Clark's presence in the offense is critical, Dungy said, not only when he catches the ball. Because of his versatility, defenses must make a choice to put a corner or a safety on Clark, or whether to match him with a linebacker.
If the team chooses to play him with a linebacker, Dungy said, it often is a mismatch in Clark's favor on a pass play. If the team covers him with a defensive back, it often creates an advantage for the running offense.
"He forces mismatches," Dungy said. "He takes advantage of some of the double coverage that some of the other guys get. He forces a lot of teams to play nickel defenses against us.
"That helps our running game. It is critical. That showed up in the playoff run. He's getting better and better and we're able to do more things with him. The numbers, in his case, don't tell the entire story of how he helps us and how he dictates what's going on a game."
As an example, Dungy pointed to this past season's game against the New England Patriots in the RCA Dome. Clark caught two passes for 15 yards, but Dungy said his presence forced the Patriots to defend him in such a way to create opportunities elsewhere.
"He didn't have big numbers," Dungy said, "but they're playing a certain way and (safety) Rodney Harrison is covering him and different things are happening.
"He's dictating what happens and allowing other guys to benefit."
The Colts played three tight ends extensively this past season, with fourth-year veteran Ben Utecht catching 31 passes for 364 yards and a diving touchdown catch against the Atlanta Falcons. He has caught 68 passes for 741 yards and a touchdown the past two seasons.
Utecht is a restricted free agent, meaning he may sign an offer sheet with another team through April 20. The Colts can match the offer and retain a restricted free agent, or possibly receive compensation from the new team based on the level of the original qualifying offer.
Tight end Bryan Fletcher also is a restricted free agent. Fletcher has caught 18 passes in each of his three NFL seasons, all with the Colts. He had 143 yards receiving this past season.