Preparing for the Colts Future: Tight Ends Dropping Like Flies

Tight end is another position with a lot of question-marks in the immediate future for the Indianapolis Colts. While only Jacob Tamme is due for a new contract in 2012, the injuries to Brody Eldridge and Dallas Clark make things interesting.

Clark has missed 16 games out of the last 32 Indianapolis has played. He is 32 years old and long removed from one of the best statistical seasons ever put up by a tight end in NFL history — 2009. He is currently signed through 2013 and is set to earn $17 million over the final two years of his contract.

The biggest problem with cutting Clark now is that he is guaranteed nearly $7 million from his signing bonus and would only save the team just over one million dollars against the cap. Cutting the veteran tight end only makes financial sense as a 2013 consideration, where the team would save $9 million against the cap.

2010 NFL Draft pick Brody Eldridge has also struggled to stay healthy. He had rib, hand, and knee injuries in 2011 that kept him out of practices and on the team’s injury report throughout the vast majority of the season. When he has played, he has been an effective blocker and even gotten involved in the passing game from time to time. There is little chance that he is going anywhere in the short-term future, but if injury issues continue he could find himself placed on the injured reserve sooner rather than later.

At minimum, the Colts should ask Clark to restructure or extend his contract to clear cap room so the team can retain Tamme. Keeping Clark around could help develop a young quarterback if they’re going in that direction.

The issue with parting ways with Clark is that it will leave the team with a choice to either take a chance on blocking tight end Anthony Hill from the practice squad or to draft a player like Stanford’s Coby Fleener — likely a second round pick. Of course the irony with taking a player like Fleener is that he could very well join the team that drafts Andrew Luck.

The problem with the move is that it seems intuitive that the Colts could really benefit from investing most of the picks in the 2012 NFL Draft on the defensive side of the football — especially with a major defensive overhaul imminent under new head coach Chuck Pagano. Potentially investing the top pick at quarterback, having real questions at wide receiver to answer, and using a second rounder on a player like Fleener takes up three of the team’s seven picks — and could require investing all of the top picks on the offense.

The team could not buy a break in 2011. If players like Wayne and Mathis move on in free agency and a player like Dallas Clark moves on because of age and injury concerns, a rebuild of both sides of the football could be the only option. If that is the case, it most certainly will play into the front office’s decision on Peyton Manning’s future — retaining a very expensive aging veteran with health issues on a club that will not be competitive in the short-term makes little sense for either party.

The humor to find in all of this is that running back and the offensive line (the Colts biggest offensive questions heading into the 2011 off-season) could be the only areas on the offensive side of the football with a great deal of certainty moving forward. How odd to make a statement like that for a passing offensive juggernaut like the Colts.

No matter how these moves break, the front office has a TON of work to do in the off-season. Choosing to keep the group together or split it up will be the most difficult decision Jim Irsay and his staff will have had to make since they traded away Jim Harbaugh to draft Manning in the 2008 NFL Draft.

*The other options available include a later pick in the fourth or fifth round on small school receiving tight end Ladarius Green out of Louisiana-Lafayette. In terms of free agency, frankly, Tamme is the best option available if the Colts intend to keep another receiving tight end behind Clark — or to supplant Clark with a cost-effective replacement. Other options are either not nearly prolific as pass-catchers or will cost too much to acquire — Jermichael Finley, Tony Gonzalez, or Fred Davis.