The 2011 season for the Indianapolis Colts was forgettable to say the least. No Peyton Manning meant no hope and the losses mounted while the quarterback position floundered. The poor play of the quarterback position cannot take all the blame for the miserable season, as there were a number of players who under performed and chief among those players was one Dallas Clark. One thing that Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky could have used last season was a reliable pair of hands at the tight end position and with a disappointing eight drops, Clark was definitely not that guy. Once a mainstay in the top 5 of preseason fantasy rankings, as well as a favorite target of Peyton Manning, Clark is now a player on the fringe of fantasy relevance heading into the 2012 season. The merciful ending of the 2011 season would also be the end of Clark's tenure in Indianapolis as he was released in March of this year. There was the initial speculation that he was done in the NFL, then visits with the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs came before ultimately signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Clark would ink a one-year, $2.7 million dollar deal, with $1 million guaranteed, in May to replace the departed Kellen Winslow (who was traded to Seattle for a 7th round draft pick). As he enters his tenth NFL season, Clark finds himself on a new team, in a new offensive system and with a very uncertain fantasy football future. Will he be worthy of being selected in 2012 fantasy drafts? That is the question that will be examined as we evaluate the former Pro Bowl, and first round NFL Draft selection from Iowa.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers ran a close second to the Colts as one of the most disappointing teams of the 2011 season and they could not use the excuse of having lost a Hall Of Fame quarterback for the entire year. No, they appeared to just plain quit on coach Raheem Morris on their way to losing the final 10 games of the season, costing Morris and his staff their jobs. Morris had gotten the reputation of being too much of a 'player's coach', the team looked very complacent and appeared to sleepwalk down the stretch in 2011. Enter new head coach Greg Schiano, formerly of Rutgers, and his hard-nosed, extremely disciplined system and 'my way or the highway' approach. The first player to hit that proverbial highway was Winslow, who could not abide by the rules that Schiano was implementing, the self proclaimed 'soldier' would comment on his trade, "(Schiano) came over there (and said), 'Toes on the line! Toes on the line!' Blowing the whistle. You can't laugh. You can't joke around." Winslow said, "So I decided not to go to OTAs." Bye-Bye, Kellen. Hello Dallas Clark as the new pass catching tight end option for the Buccaneers in 2012. Of course, determining just how valuable a pass catching tight end will be in Tampa Bay moving forward is an interesting question. New coach Schiano will likely take a run-first, control the clock, and then take the occasional deep shot down the field approach, as he rids the Bucs of the old West Coast Offense they had run the past few seasons. New offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, who is credited as being a major influence on the improvement that Eli Manning has shown in his career, will look to run an offense similar to the one he was used to seeing as the New York Giants quarterback coach. Look for Schiano and Sullivan to pound the ball on the ground and then look to strike with a deep ball to newly signed wide receiving threat Vincent Jackson , by implementing some play-action looks.
Gone are the days when the tight end in Tampa Bay will see over 115 targets in a season, as Winslow did in 2011, as the position will be de-emphasized in the new Buccaneer offense.
There are many pundits who believe that second year tight end Luke Stocker may be a sleeper pick in fantasy drafts this season as he will be splitting time with Clark. I am not among those Stocker believers, when both are on the field it will be Clark who will be out in routes and Stocker who will line up inside and be the blocking tight end. As Josh Freeman looks to rebound from a very sub-par 2011 campaign, he will have a 10-year, solid pass catching, veteran tight end in Clark as his primary slot receiver. Clark is an excellent short-route option for Freeman in the Tampa offense, as long as last season was a one-time aberration and not an erosion of skills, Clark has the hands to be a reliable target for Freeman. Stocker will be the in-line blocking tight end, best suited for the run heavy offense that Tampa will run and have limited opportunities in the passing attack in 2012. While Stocker may very well be the future at the tight end position for the Buccaneers, it figures to be Clark and his very limited blocking skills, that was brought in to be the go-to pass catching option in 2012. Using the 2011 New York Giants as an example, as new OC Sullivan has indicated that Tom Coughlin and Kevin Gilbride directly influence his style of coaching, it is obvious the tight end position will not see the usage in Tampa that it formerly has. The Buccaneers targeted the tight end position over 140 times in 2011 and the New York Giants only 87. Quite a drop off in overall targets but as far as the number of red zone targets the Giants actually had one more with 17 intended for tight ends than the 16 that Tampa attempted. Clark has amassed 46 regular season touchdowns in his career and figures to be a primary red zone option for the Buccaneers in 2012. Defenses will sell out to stop Vincent Jackson, leaving Clark free to find an open spot in the end zone.
In addition to the scheme of the offense, it is necessary to consider age and injuries when looking at the fantasy potential of Dallas Clark for the 2012 season. At 33 years of age, entering his tenth NFL season, Clark's days in the league as well as fantasy football discussions are coming to an end. From 2004-2009 he was a top 16-fantasy tight end, actually finishing in the top 5 in scoring from 2007-2009. Beginning with a wrist injury suffered during the 2009 season, he has struggled to stay healthy and played in only 17 total games over the last two seasons. To maintain any fantasy value, Clark will have to show that he is able to stay on the field for more than the approximately 8 games he has averaged the last two years. With newly signed Vincent Jackson able to stretch the defense as one of the leagues premier deep ball threats, youngsters Arrelious Benn , Mike Williams and Preston Parker drawing coverage to the outside and the threat of rookie Doug Martin catching passes in the flat there will be plenty of room over the middle for Clark to roam free. It is hard to imagine defenses looking to double cover Clark while allowing the other options at the skill positions to pick them apart. Clark is going to get the chance to put together one last fantasy hurrah in 2012 for Tampa Bay and I feel he is WORTHY of being selected in 12 team fantasy formats. His current ADP (16th round, kicker and defense territory) makes him an excellent very late round draft value as a #2 / bye week filler tight end who has the opportunity to approach double-digit touchdowns. Believe me, I am as surprised as the next guy that it worked out the way it did when I analyzed Clark and his potential but things are lined up for him to have a surprisingly good 2012 fantasy season.