The Indianapolis Colts’ pinnacle at tight end was in 2001 when Ken Dilger and Marcus Pollard were on the roster — they offered the best combination of blocking and pass-catching the team has ever had on the field at one time. When the Colts drafted Dallas Clark in 2003, Indy took a step closer to having two of the leagues best tight ends but Clark was only a rookie and both he and Pollard were better suited as receivers than they were adept as blockers. When Ben Utecht joined the team in 2005, Pollard was not retained. So, when Utecht also failed to become the kind of big-bodied blocker with soft hands the Colts hoped for — primarily due to injuries — it was back to the drawing board.
Indianapolis was without a legitimate partner for Clark in the two tight end sets the Colts loved to run when Peyton Manning entered the league in 1998. The team was able to get by because Clark quickly became one of the league’s top pass-catching tight ends and gave Manning a reliable outlet — who also happened to be a game-changer who could dictate defensive schemes and play-calls. As Clark’s importance continued to grow, Bill Polian, Jim Irsay, and Tony Dungy recognized how important it was to find another option to compliment him.
In the 2008 NFL Draft, the Colts picked Tom Santi and Jacob Tamme, who would enter camp with a 2007 undrafted free agent practice squad veteran, Gijon Robinson, to infuse youth and talent at the position. Robinson started in 2008 and seemed to have the edge over the two rookies but he has failed to make a transition that would indicate that he will be capable of fulfilling the Dilger-role. Even though his size suggests that he could play the blocking role — and his college experience at full back made him an intriguing prospect — the addition of Brody Eldridge in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL Draft effectively ended his hopes for a long-term stay in Indianapolis.
The first of the two 2008 rookies to break into a real game scenario was Tom Santi when he stepped in for Dallas Clark and put up 80 yards on 6 catches, and nearly got in for a touchdown, against the Baltimore Ravens in 2009 — he fumbled on the goal line when he stretched out to break the plane. Santi has also had injury issues that have kept him from pushing his way into a permanent rotation. These injuries may keep him from breaking the final roster or even entering training camp in 2011. Needless to say, he needs a very healthy summer. If he does, his size, speed, and athleticism make him a superior option to Robinson and may pit him against a fifth receiver for a roster spot — likely Blair White.
The biggest noise-maker in 2010 as a “next man up” contributor was the aforementioned Tamme. His presence and performance gives the Colts considerable leverage and flexibility with Clark as he makes his return from a season-ending hand injury. Tamme is definitely not at Clark’s level yet, but considering his production in his first opportunity to play a significant role in the offense, and that he focused primarily on special teams coverage units in his first two seasons, there is reason to believe that he has not reached his ceiling — both in terms of individual skill and building a rapport with Manning. The combination of offensive experience, production, youth, and special teams talents may nail down Tamme as Clark’s long-term replacement.
Rookie starters in the Colts offense at skill positions are extremely rare, particularly from the fourth round. List Brody Eldridge as one of those to accomplish the feat. There is little doubt that Eldridge, even as a rookie, is the closest the Colts franchise has ever come to actually replacing Dilger’s blocking ability. How much he will be able to develop in that role could have a large impact on the face of the Colts offense moving forward. While Eldridge did not catch a lot of passes during his collegiate career — in part because two of his seasons were spent primarily on the offensive line — the Colts front office indicated that he had surprisingly soft hands and would be a factor in the passing game. Unfortunately, Eldridge only had a few pass-catching opportunities and he was unimpressive. It will take development and sustained health for him to make a jump to Dilger’s level of production and on-field impact.
While it has taken the Colts a decade to put together a group of tight ends that has a fighting chance at matching Peyton Manning’s initial Dilger-Pollard combination, 2011 could be the year it happens. Consider that Clark is already considered one of the most potent offensive weapons in the league, Tamme stepped in and matched his statistical production in his first opportunity to start, Eldridge showed superior blocking ability to any Colts tight end since Dilger, and Santi — when healthy — showed the kind of height, athletic ability, and straight-line speed to do real damage against a legitimate NFL opponent. Two Dallas Clarks, one young Dilger, and another imposing pass-catching threat is a dangerous and very loaded group. When the brass in Indianapolis has to decide which of the horses they can fit into their stable, it will be no simple task. With these tight ends, watch out for a high-powered Colts offense in the coming season.