Miami Dolphins

Charles Clay signs offer sheet with Bills; Dolphins can match ‒ or lose TE for nothing

Will Charles Clay be one of Ryan Tannehill’s receiving targets again next season? The Dolphins have five days to match an offer sheet the tight end signed with the Buffalo Bills.
Will Charles Clay be one of Ryan Tannehill’s receiving targets again next season? The Dolphins have five days to match an offer sheet the tight end signed with the Buffalo Bills. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Charles Clay finally signed an offer sheet with the Bills Tuesday, and now the Dolphins are left with a unenviable choice:

Match the hefty contract, which reportedly gives Clay the second-most guaranteed money of any NFL tight end, or let him walk for nothing.

The Buffalo News first reported that the Bills presented Clay with a five-year, $38 million offer sheet, with more than $20 million guaranteed. Since Clay is the Dolphins’ transition player, the team has five days to match the contract and keep their ascending tight end. If they do not, they’ll lose him for nothing.

The deal is reportedly structured in a way to exploit the Dolphins’ expected salary cap issues in 2016. Next year, Ndamukong Suh will cost $28.6 million against the cap and Ryan Tannehill would cost another $16.2 if he plays under the fifth-year option. The Dolphins will almost assuredly want to sign Tannehill to an extension before then to provide cap relief.

Then there’s the broader question: Do the Dolphins believe Clay is worth more than $7 million annually?

He’s only had one truly healthy and productive season – 2013, when he caught 69 passes for 759 yards and six touchdowns. Clay saw a drop-off in his injury-riddled 2014 season, but still parlayed that into a massive payday.

The Dolphins also might believe the can survive the loss of Clay after signing former Browns tight end Jordan Cameron to a two-year deal last week. But they certainly wouldn’t prefer it; the team had envisioned a two-tight end attack not unlike what the Patriots had in Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.

The organization valued Clay enough to slap the transition tag (a one-year, $7.1 million tender) on him before the start of free agency. But in doing so, the Dolphins risked losing Clay over roughly a million dollars.

Had they designated him their franchise player (which would have paid him $8.3 million this year), the Dolphins would almost certainly not be in this predicament. Teams that poach a franchised player away from their existing team must surrender two first-round picks in compensation.

DOLPHINS FREE AGENCY TRACKER

A look at the Dolphins’ key transactions since free agency began March 10:

Key new additions: DT Ndamukong Suh, TE Jordan Cameron, CB Brice McCain, WR Kenny Stills.

Key departures: WR Mike Wallace, WR Brandon Gibson, WR Brian Hartline, DT Jared Odrick, CB Cortland Finnegan, DT Randy Starks, OL Shelley Smith, DB Jimmy Wilson, OL Nate Garner, LB Philip Wheeler.

Who’s returning: P Brandon Fields, LB Kelvin Sheppard, S Michael Thomas, DE Derrick Shelby.

Key decisions awaiting: Charles Clay (signed offer sheet with Bills), QB Matt Moore, RB Daniel Thomas, S Louis Delmas.

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