Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill dropped back from under center and executed a picture-perfect play-action fake. Tight end Charles Clay, lined up at the fullback position in an offset I-formation, darted toward the sideline before rounding off his route as he raced toward the end zone, breaking past the coverage of Seattle Seahawks linebacker Leroy Hill. Tannehill delivered a pristine pass that hit Clay in stride for a 29-yard touchdown.
Clay had his breakout campaign in 2013, but his performance against the Seahawks in 2012—highlighted by that display of his underrated speed, quickness, athleticism and route-running ability—set the wheels in motion for his future as a key cog in the Dolphins offense.
In that game, Clay produced one-third of his season total in receptions, more than one-third of his yardage total on the season and one of his two touchdown receptions on the season in that game.
Keep in mind, this was all against a Seahawks defense that ranked No. 1 in scoring, No. 4 in yards allowed and No. 6 against the pass that season. Thus, it's easy to see in hindsight how this could be a sign of things to come.
Clay finished the 2013 season with 69 receptions, 759 yards and six touchdowns, each putting him among the top 10 tight ends in the league. For his efforts, he earned his due among the NFL Network's Top 100 players, as voted on by the other players in the league.
It didn't take the rest of the league very long to recognize Clay's importance to the offense. In that sense, it may not be entirely fair to call him a "secret weapon." He has clearly developed into one of Tannehill's most trusted targets, even in clutch situations. On third and fourth down, Clay had the second-most targets and the most receptions of any Dolphins pass-catcher last season.
Clay may not be a household name just yet, but his emergence in 2013 could lead to more attention from opposing defenses in 2014. In fact, that process has already begun, with the New England Patriots focusing on taking him out in Miami's 24-20 late-season triumph over its AFC East rivals. Clay had one reception for six yards in that game, but it was a 100-yard day for wide receiver Mike Wallace and a 300-yard, three-touchdown game for Tannehill.
The Patriots matched up cornerback Aqib Talib on Clay for much of the game, but instead of letting it affect him negatively, he took it as a positive—a hat tip to his value.
"They did some things to try to take me away," Clay said, according to Chris Perkins of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, "but I'm still going to go all out because I know it's going to open things up for other guys, guys like Mike. He had a great game. As long as we get the win, I couldn't care less how many catches I get."
It's not hard to see why: He is a matchup nightmare.
Take, for example, this touchdown catch against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 5 of the 2013 season. The Dolphins were lined up in a trips set to the right with Clay all by himself on the left. In this situation, some tight ends might be considered a decoy on the left, blanketed by a defensive back that can match him move for move. However, Clay is not like some tight ends, and this was actually considered a favorable matchup for the Dolphins.
The play went off as scripted: Clay ran a fade route toward the front of the end zone and turned to look for the ball right as Tannehill released the pass. Leaning back and to his right, Clay was able to haul in the pass while tapping both feet in bounds to ensure the touchdown before halftime.
This is the beauty of Clay's value to the offense. The 6'3", 245-pounder is not the big-bodied in-line blocking tight end of traditional offenses of old, but he's such a matchup problem for defenses that his value in the passing game more than makes up for his lack of contributions in the running game.
As it turns out, the Dolphins offense will be anything but traditional in 2014. Where things were a bit more old school under former offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, the arrival of new coordinator Bill Lazor (transplanted from the Philadelphia Eagles) could mean big things for the "move" tight end, who could make a bigger impact when given the opportunity to move around the offense even more than he has in the past, including in pre-snap motion.
Tight ends were a big component of the Eagles offense in 2013, which further bodes well for Clay's prospects in 2014.
Eagles’ TEs (Ertz & Celek) caught 22% of Philly’s receptions in ’13. Charles Clay caught 19% of MIA’s receptions. New OC is from PHI.— John Paulsen (@4for4_John) July 11, 2014
Clay is every bit the tight end that Brent Celek and Zach Ertz are. What's more, Clay is head and shoulders (maybe two sets of heads and shoulders) above the other tight ends on the Dolphins roster, making him the clear-cut front-runner for any and all targets to tight ends.
This is an important year for the Dolphins offense, and for Tannehill. With a new offensive coordinator and an 80 percent new offensive line, a lot is changing, but the familiarity between Tannehill and Clay could be one of a few beacons of hope for Miami's passing attack.