How Charles Clay’s role will evolve under Brian Daboll


New Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll is coming into a tough situation. He will inherit an offense that ranked 26th in DVOA (Football Outsiders) last season and one that, on paper, looks like one of the worst in the NFL.

He will be starting his tenure with a QB competition, a piecemeal offensive line, and a wide receiver group that fails to strike the fear in any secondary. Aside from the obvious playmaker in LeSean Mccoy, Daboll should lean heavily on tight end Charles Clay.

Clay continues to battle a degenerative knee condition, but he still has the ability to make plays, and the Bills’ offense will need that from him in 2018. He finished his 7th year with 52 receptions for 572 yards and two touchdowns, but if he continues to stay healthy, I think he could be even more explosive this year.

In 2017 under offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, Clay flourished in the short area (0-9 yards). In fact, 34 of his receptions and both touchdowns were in that quadrant. According to SportsInfo Solutions (SIS), the top three types of routes on which Clay was targeted were the out, flat and drag routes. These are types of routes that play to Clay’s strengths, and it will be up to Daboll to get him in advantageous matchups where Clay has the opportunity to maximize those strengths.

Out Route

Clay possesses good short area quickness, so quick out routes are ideal. This strategy allowed him to post his highest receiver rating at 108.5 and a 57.1 first down conversion percentage last year. The Tulsa product was targeted 11 times on out routes and managed to haul in seven receptions for 61 yards and one touchdown. That touchdown came in week one against the Jets. His shake and burst out of his break allows him to easily separate from a very talented safety in Marcus Maye.


Flat route

Clay is a former fullback, so he is used to getting these types of short passes out of the backfield, but what makes him even more dangerous is his ability to make people miss. According to Pro Football Focus, Clay has forced the 4th-most missed tackles since 2013.

Clay caught 7/8 passes for 45 yards and forced three missed tackles running this flat routes. A couple of the missed tackles came against the Falcons in week four. On 2nd-and-4, the Bills send out 12 personnel and align them in a compressed 2×2 set. Clay is aligned into the boundary (top), and Dennison dials up a curl/flat concept. The Falcons play man coverage, and linebacker Duke Riley is unable to cover or bring down the slippery tight end.

These types of routes get the ball in his hands quickly and allow him to immediately become a runner so that he can flash his elusiveness. We also saw a similar concept later in the game, this time off of play action. The Bills are in a 2×2 set and Dennison runs a slant/flat concept into the boundary. Clay catches the ball while putting his body in a position to make a move on the linebacker. He is able to plant and drive back into the field of play and gains another few yards.


Drag route

According to SIS, Clay caught 5/8 passes for 53 yards last season when he was running a drag route. This route allows Clay to use his quickness to horizontally create separation vs. linebackers and safeties.

Flashback to week two; the Bills are in a 2×2 set but motion into a 3×1 formation. The pre-snap movement puts Clay, who is in line to the boundary, man-on-man versus the corner. On the snap, Clay runs a drag route at a depth of 5 yards, catches it and converts a 1st down — something he did 60% of the time when running a drag route.

The following week, the Bills’ offense again capitalizes on that route on a very similar play. This time the linebacker is in good position to wall Clay off, so he gives a shake while using his eyes to slightly hold the defender before flattening the route out.


Brian Daboll’s Offense

Last year at Alabama, the team didn’t utilize their tight ends as much as I am sure Daboll wanted to, which isn’t that surprising, given the QB situation and their ability to dominate up front. The position only registered 23 receptions or 11% of the receptions on the entire offense.

Given Daboll’s scheme, Clay’s traits and the state of the receivers on the roster, I do believe the 29-year-old tight end could see an increase in production, even with the question marks at quarterback.

Top TEs on Chiefs and Dolphins. Courtesy of PFF

Clay still has the wheels to be a threat down the field, and that will help overcome some of the apparent deficiencies at the wideout position. In 2017, Clay was targeted eight times on passes over 20 yards down the field and reeled in four receptions for 142 yards. A lot of those came off of play action, something that should still be available, given the re-commitment to a diverse ground game. His ability to stretch defenses vertically down the seam will help open up passing lanes underneath for the role players; that is the ‘Patriot Way’.


Clay’s quickness, burst, ability to put his body in optimal position to create YAC and elusiveness should mesh well with Daboll’s scheme.

The slant/flat concept (Tosser), a staple in the E-P system. Uses his eyes to hold the safety, bursts to the flats and adjusts his body during the process of the catch for the easy 8 yards


Given Daboll’s experience and history, he will give his offensive players more responsibility. In the E-P system, there are far more read/option routes built into concepts than in Dennison’s scheme, especially at the slot and tight end positions.

Basic plays and where to expect Clay to be lined up (Y).

Receivers will need to be able to adjust their routes on the fly, which will pair well with the natural ability that Clay possesses.

Daboll was brought in because of his ability to teach and create a solid game plan. He’s coached some decent tight ends in Martellus Bennett, Benjamin Watson and arguably the best tight end ever in Rob Gronkowski. There is no doubt in my mind that he knows what he has in Charles Clay and how to use him.