Third of a Position-by-Position Series on the Colts' Roster
INDIANAPOLIS – To Jim Caldwell, the Colts' tight end situation hardly could be more positive.
And Caldwell said that's true for more reasons than the obvious.
Caldwell, entering his first season as the Colts' head coach, said the obvious strength at the position is Dallas Clark, a seven-year NFL veteran had one of his best statistical seasons this past season, who is in his prime and who has improved with each NFL season.
But Caldwell said there's more to the position than Clark.
There's the improvement of second-year veteran Gijon Robinson.
There's the depth provided by two rookie draft selections.
And there's an overall depth that could make the position a reliable strength in coming seasons.
"We feel good about the group," Caldwell said in a recent interview for this story on the team's tight ends, the third in a position-by-position series scheduled to run on Colts.com this month.
The Colts' tight ends, a year after the free-agent departure of Ben Utecht to Cincinnati, made up for the veteran's loss in the passing game with a mix of rookies and free agents.
And they also made up for it with continued emphasis on Clark.
Clark, the Colts' first-round selection in the 2003 NFL Draft from the University of Iowa, has played at a Pro Bowl level in recent seasons, and this past season, he was named as a Pro Bowl alternate after enhancing his role in the offense.
"Dallas is an unusual individual," Caldwell said. "He's a guy who keeps getting better every year. He's certainly had very, very big catches week in and week out for us. He has been a dominant performer at that position."
Which Caldwell said isn't an easy task.
Because while Clark is a tight end, in the Colts' complex, flexible scheme, Clark's is the most flexible of the skill positions. He lines up tight against the line, and at other times, he lines up more as a receiver, meaning he is wide of the line. He also is asked to play H-back at times, lining up in the backfield.
"The position he plays requires that he is able to do quite a few things, not only as a line-of-scrimmage blocker, but also releasing from the line of scrimmage and being an effective pass receiver in that position," Caldwell said. "We split him out so he is a detached receiver. We put him in the backfield, so that only is he responsible for protection but he's also running routes out of the backfield.
"He does a lot of different things for us and he has very diverse skills and ability. We try to showcase those as much as we possibly can.
"He's a great weapon for our offense."
That has been the case for much of Clark's career, but it has been particularly true the past two and a half seasons. Clark was critical to the team's run to a Super Bowl victory following the 2006 season, leading all receivers in reception yardage that post-season, and he followed that with a 58-catch, 616-yard season during which he set the Colts record for touchdown receptions by a tight end with eleven.
He didn't match the touchdown total this past season, but his overall production increased significantly and he set a franchise record for receptions by a tight end, catching 77 passes for a career-high 848 yards and six touchdowns.
"That's the thing that I think has been the hallmark of a quality player in this league, and that is that they continue to get better," Caldwell said. "That's what Dallas is able to do. He's able to focus in on some areas where he thinks he's a little weak or a little deficient and you'll see the following year he improves in that area. He's a very hard worker, very diligent at trying to pursue his craft.
"I think you see evidence of that on the field, week in and week out."
While Clark is known for his abilities as an all-around player, and as one of the NFL's top receiving tight ends, the Colts' other starting tight end was hardly known at all before this past season.
Caldwell said Robinson took steps to changing that this past season.
And he said he expects Robinson to only continue to improve.
Robinson, who signed with the Colts as a free agent from Missouri Western State shortly after the 2007 NFL Draft, spent that season on the practice squad, then made the roster this past season. He moved immediately into the primary starting H-Back role, and while coaches and personnel officials last off-season talked mainly about his strengths as a blocker, Robinson caught 19 passes for 166 yards last season.
He started 14 of 15 games and Caldwell said he had an "outstanding year."
"He came along and really progressed," Caldwell said. "I don't think he has quite scratched the surface of what he's going to be. He blocked extremely well on the line of scrimmage. He's a tenacious blocker. He caught the ball well, certainly, during the course of the season.
"We're anticipating that he'll continue to improve and move forward."
Robinson this past season was just one of three players aside from Clark during what was a transition season at the position. The Colts not only allowed Utecht to sign with the Bengals as a free agent last off-season, they released Bryan Fletcher, who – like Utecht – was productive in the passing offense for several seasons.
The Colts in the 2008 NFL Draft addressed the position twice, selecting Jacob Tamme in the fourth round from the University of Kentucky, then selecting Tom Santi from the University of Virginia in the sixth. The Colts also last season signed Jamie Petrowkski, a tight end from Indiana State. He spent the last month of the season on the practice squad and re-signed on January 5.
Tamme played in 12 games as a reserve, catching three passes for 12 yards, and Santi started twice and played in six games. He caught 10 passes for 64 yards and a critical touchdown in a come-from-behind victory at Houston before being placed on injured reserve on November 19 with a shoulder injury.
"Both guys are capable," Caldwell said of Tamme and Santi. "Neither one of them has played an extensive amount at this point in time. We do anticipate their role will probably increase in the next year."