Miami Dolphins

Miami Dolphins’ Charles Clay capably filling void at tight end

When Dustin Keller was carted off the field in Houston in mid-August, most figured the Dolphins were going to have to patch up a huge hole at tight end with a combination of fill-in parts.

Not anymore. After five games, Charles Clay has separated himself from mere fill-in status.

Ranked fifth among all AFC tight ends and ninth in the league with 23 catches for 297 yards (seventh most in the NFL) and two receiving touchdowns, Clay suddenly has become a must-have fantasy football player and one of Ryan Tannehill’s favorite targets.

Third on the team in receptions, Clay (6-3, 255 pounds) is on pace to reel in 74 catches for 950 yards, which would shatter the team receiving yardage record for a tight end set by Randy McMichael in 2004 (73 catches for 791 yards). Seven weeks ago when Keller’s knee snapped, nobody saw that coming.

“I think he’s one of the hardest guys to cover on the team,” Tannehill said Tuesday, before the Dolphins went their separate ways and began enjoying their bye week.

“He’s got the speed, he’s got the size, he’s matched up against linebackers and safeties. You put those guys on him, and he’s really tough to cover; we like our matchups there. Even in the [Ravens] game, he had a corner on him when he caught the touchdown. He’s a really explosive, versatile guy that we can get the ball to in a number of different ways.”

Clay, a sixth-round pick in 2011, showed flashes of his big play ability during his first two seasons (34 combined catches, 446 yards, five TDs). But he has never put together a stretch like this. Clay has created 144 yards after contact — fifth-best among tight ends, according to Pro Football Focus. Only Antonio Gates, Julius Thomas, Jimmy Graham and Jermaine Gresham have more.

“I feel like the coaches have done a really good job putting me in certain mismatch problems, and Ryan has done a good job capitalizing on it,” Clay said. “I’ve done some good things, but obviously everything isn’t perfect. We got a lot of football left. So I’m doing everything I can to keep playing, keep improving and just get better week to week.”

One of the things Clay can certainly improve on is cutting down on drops. He’s currently tied with Gates and the Ravens’ Ed Dickson for the most by tight ends with four.

“Route running, being detailed, all the little detailed things are things I can improve on,” Clay said. “Running routes at the proper depth for timing, pass blocking, my hands in run blocking. There’s all type of things I can get better at.”

The fourth of five children, Clay grew up in Little Rock, Ark., a huge fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars and running back Maurice Jones-Drew. A tailback, fullback, tight end, receiver and wildcat quarterback at the University of Tulsa, Clay wasn’t sure coming into the league what position would end up suiting him best. Now, it seems he’s finally found himself a game-changing role.

“Even now, I don’t really just think of myself as a tight end,” said Clay, who had a 1-yard touchdown run against the Colts, his lone carry as a fullback this season.

“To me, it’s always been about trying to be good at multiple things and eventually where the team thinks you can help, that’s where you go play. Hard work, wherever I’m playing at, is what I’ve always hung my hat on.”

So far Tannehill has targeted Clay 31 times (fourth most on the team). According to Pro Football Focus, Clay has played in all but 49 of Miami’s 311 snaps, proving the Dolphins believe he can be a real mismatch problem and needs to be on the field a lot.

“Charles knew it was his time to step up,” said center Mike Pouncey, Miami’s first-round pick in the same draft class with Clay.

“They brought him onto this football team to make plays. He struggled at first, but he’s come a long way since his rookie year, even his second year. He’s taking advantage of every opportunity thrown his way. I couldn’t be more happy for the guy.”

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