Maybe it's a product of great college conditioning, a longstanding trend of vertical passing offenses or even the simple fact that younger players are becoming more athletic, but one thing is certain: the tight end position is changing.
With former basketball stars like Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham and notorious party boys like Rob Gronkowski dominating the position, the tight end is becoming a "sexy" position for teams to target. Even the Steelers, with their hard-nosed, blue-collar mentality, possess one of the best pass-catching (albeit under-utilized) tight ends in football in Heath Miller, who is perhaps the ultimate hard-nosed, blue-collar player.
The problem is Miller is beginning to grow old, and NFL formations are gravitating towards possessing multiple tight ends. It's been stated for several weeks the Steelers should attempt to bring in another tight end this offseason, and fortunately for them, there are two great players available in Julius Thomas and Jordan Cameron. But it's another, slightly under-the-radar player Pittsburgh could be wise to target.
Charles Clay, a fullback turned tight end, has had two very productive seasons for the Miami Dolphins. Steelers fans probably remember Clay best for his monster performance in 2013, when the young tight end racked up over 100 yards and two touchdowns on the way to a Dolphins upset at Heinz Field.
In fact, Clay is almost an exact replica of Miller. Clay is two inches shorter than Miller, but the two players weigh the same, are both great run blockers and both are very capable of catching the football. Clay was actually one of the best run-blocking tight ends in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. Clay might not match Gronkowski's gaudy statistics, but he's a reliable pass catcher, a willing blocker and most importantly, a great athlete.
In today's NFL, it seems as if tight ends are becoming some of the best athletes in the league. Clay played fullback his rookie year, becoming a tight end only after incumbent Dustin Keller was injured in a preseason game. His ability to line up at multiple positions (including split out or even wildcat quarterback) allows him to be a Swiss Army-type weapon on the field. Best of all, Clay is only 25 years old and hasn't been an injury problem, playing in at least 14 games in every season thus far.
Clay is probably worthy of starting tight end money. Even with Miller's ascending age, It's doubtful that Clay could dislodge the beloved Steeler from his starting spot. A two-tight end set, however, could allow both players to see the field. Clay is just as athletic as many of the tight ends in the draft, and he's a proven commodity. Other than Thomas and Cameron, Clay is the third-best tight end on the market, and given Cameron's injury history and off-year, it's possible Clay would garner more interest than the former Browns Pro-Bowler.
If the Steelers were to look to a tight end in free agency, Charles Clay would seem to be the safest option available, and given the relatively cheap price tags for tight ends, he would probably fetch a $5-$6 million annual contract on the open market.