Miami Dolphins

Healthy Charles Clay is finally back in top form for Dolphins

Tight end Charles Clay #42 of the Miami Dolphins is brought down by outside linebacker Gerald Hodges #50 of the Minnesota Vikings in the third quarter during a game at Sun Life Stadium on December 21, 2014 in Miami Gardens, Florida.
Tight end Charles Clay #42 of the Miami Dolphins is brought down by outside linebacker Gerald Hodges #50 of the Minnesota Vikings in the third quarter during a game at Sun Life Stadium on December 21, 2014 in Miami Gardens, Florida. Getty Images

Timing, as they say, is everything.

And for Charles Clay and his balky knee, the timing simply stunk.

Clay, the dangerous tight end who seemed poised for a monster season, got hurt in training camp of his contract year.

Nearly five months later, he finally looks like his old self — and not a moment too soon.

Clay reminded everyone just how good he can be when healthy with his six-catch, 114-yard explosion against the Vikings.

Now, he has one last chance — Sunday against the Jets — to persuade the Dolphins to lock him up with a long-term contract. Because if Miami doesn’t, someone else surely will.

“Clay is a walking mismatch,” said Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace. “Anytime you’re out there, it’s always going to create another dynamic to our game, because nobody can’t check him. Nobody. I don’t care who you put on him. He’s too big for the corners and way too fast and quick for safeties and linebackers. I feel like nobody can tackle him, honestly.”

Particularly when at 100 percent.

Clay has dealt with the persistent knee injury since training camp, and it didn’t help matters that he also hurt his hamstring during the course of the season.

After appearing in the first 10 games on one good leg, Clay finally was shut down for two games about a month back.

It might have been the best thing to happen him. In the first 10 games, Clay averaged 3.9 catches for 34.6 yards per outing. In the three since his return, those averages have jumped to 4.7 and 71.3.

Clay, a fourth-year player out of Tulsa, has long insisted that the knee injury wasn’t the reason for his dip in production.

But in an unguarded moment with the Miami Herald this week, he acknowledged what many on the outside expected: He feels better now than he did earlier in the season.

And yet:

“I definitely won’t blame it,” Clay said. “If I’m out there, I obviously feel good enough to go out there. I feel confident and good enough that I can go out and make plays for my team. If I’m out there, and as I said, obviously I’m capable, so I won’t say that that had any kind of effect on me.”

Added Dolphins coach Joe Philbin: “As I’ve said many times, he’s one of our harder-working guys. I thought he played well. He’s been healthy this year. We wouldn’t have put him out there if he wasn’t healthy.”

There’s no questioning Clay’s health now. The only real question for the rest of the season: Will his resurgence be too little, too late to make a major difference financially?

Clay surely won’t be one of the top-paid tight ends in the league, which makes the franchise tag unlikely.

But that’s not saying he won’t get paid, either.

The template for Clay’s deal could be the four-year, $16million contract Brandon Pettigrew signed with the Lions before the 2014 season. The Lions guaranteed Pettigrew $8million in the deal.

In his five previous years in the league, Pettigrew averaged 57 catches, 566 yards and three touchdowns per season. Since Clay became the starter in 2013, he has averaged 61 catches, 660 yards and four touchdowns.

From his earliest days in Miami, Clay told his family that he would like to play his entire career a Dolphin. And he’s got the type of production and temperament that Philbin loves, so it would not at all be surprising if he’s back.

And in a perverse way, the Dolphins might have caught a small break by the way this year has gone. Had Clay been healthy and productive throughout, he might have cost twice as much to keep.

Clay, who said he fell short of his own expectations this year, knows that smaller stats often translate to smaller dollars.

“But my main thing is, when you turn on the film and watch me, you know you’re going to get somebody who plays hard every play,” Clay said. “You’re going to get somebody who’s tough, who’s going to fight, things like that. Stuff like that goes unnoticed when you look at the stat sheet, but that’s something you want in all the players on your team, someone who’s going to go out there and give it your all, and they’re not just worried about what their numbers look like and things like that.

“That’s just not me,” Clay added. “It might end up hurting me, it might not. But at the end of the day, I’m just trying to win football games.”

He’ll have at least one more chance in a Dolphins uniform on Sunday.

▪ Defensive lineman Derrick Shelby returned to practice Thursday after being held out Wednesday with an ankle injury. He was limited in his participation.

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