Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Underrated Clark’s top of NFL’s tight-end crop

September 29, 2009

By Justin Cohn

How is Dallas Clark not a Pro Bowler? How is he not a household name among NFL fans?


What Clark, the seventh-year tight end out of Iowa, has been doing lately has been magnificent. One might argue he is the most important cog in the Indianapolis Colts’ offense, aside from quarterback Peyton Manning.

And by lately, I mean the last three years.

Clark has been demonstrably successful this season in prime-time games. He had seven catches for 62 yards and a touchdown during Sunday night’s 31-10 victory at Arizona, and that comes after seven catches for 183 yards and a touchdown in a 27-23 Monday night victory at Miami. He’s become a staple of the highlight TV shows.

In 2007 and 2008 combined, he had 135 catches for 1,464 yards and 17 touchdowns. Compare that to the AFC’s three Pro Bowl tight ends of last year: Clark had more touchdowns than Tony Gonzalez’s 15, he equaled Antonio Gates in receptions and touchdowns, and he eclipsed Owen Daniels in both categories.

And Clark played fewer games than all three.

It’s true that you can pretty much spin statistics any way you want. And the blocking ability of tight ends has to be greatly accounted for, too. But Clark could be the most versatile tight end in the NFL.

Clark is essentially the Colts’ No. 2 receiver, especially since Anthony Gonzalez’s knee injury. He lines up wide, in the slot and on the offensive line. He draws double coverage sometimes, blocks defensive ends other times. He even runs the ball.

On third-and-one early in Sunday’s game, the Colts (3-0) knew they couldn’t rely on Joseph Addai or the offensive line to get a first down – they’d already missed on one earlier – so they went with Clark on an end-around that gained seven yards. On the next play, Manning connected with Reggie Wayne for a one-handed 20-yard touchdown and a 7-3 lead.

The next Colts drive saw Manning find Clark on a 10-yard slant pattern for a touchdown and a 14-3 lead. The game was never again in doubt.

This is nothing new. It’s no secret that Clark is Manning’s go-to guy when the pressure is on, say on third-and-five, and that’s because he’s reliable during moments of such magnitude.

There is no way that the 6-foot-3 Clark is as big as his listed weight of 252 pounds, and he’s not as physically overpowering as either the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Gates or the 6-foot-5, 243-pound Gonzalez.

Granted, those guys revolutionized the position by proving they could be a receiving force on every down. But Clark is revolutionizing things, too, through his sheer versatility. He should be beloved, not just by fantasy football players crazy for his stats.

Gonzalez, typically regarded as the NFL’s best tight end, had just one reception for 16 yards in the Atlanta Falcons’ 26-10 loss to New England on Sunday. That was a big game for the Falcons. When was the last time Clark had such meager production in a big game? The best I could come up with was a two-catch, 15-yard effort in a 24-20 loss to New England – in 2007.

So you can take Gonzalez, Gates, Jason Witten or Chris Cooley. These days, I’ll take Dallas Clark, and I bet I’m not the only one who would.

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