Dallas Clark was always an important part of the Colts offense, but he had a breakout year in 2009 with 100 receptions for 1,106 yards and ten touchdowns, making his first Pro Bowl. Through the first six games of 2010, he was having a "down" year with 37 receptions for 347 yards and three touchdowns as defenses placed more of a focus on shutting him down, but was still on his way to 90 catches, 900 yards, and seven or eight touchdowns. Even at those "lesser" numbers, that is a lot of production that needs to be replaced.
Currently, third-year man Jacob Tamme has been tabbed as the next man up for the Indianapolis offense. Prior to the 2008 draft, Tamme was hailed by me as a "Dallas Clark clone" and was seen as a solid insurance policy if anything happened to the talented tight end out of Iowa. Well, in 2010, that prediction looks to be a dubious one, since Tamme has been unable to step up and be productive when he's had opportunities.
He has six receptions for 47 yards since 2008 and has not caught a pass this season. Tamme has always had a great deal of talent and, it cannot be denied that he is very similar to Clark in terms of build and athletic ability. The issue with Tamme has always seemed to be his desire to get better and bring his game to the next level. He doesn't fit for passes, his arms appear to shrink in traffic, and his routes don't have the precision of Clark's — or, at the very least, the necessary level of precision needed in the Colts offense.
Since he is in the next man up seat, he will be given the first opportunity to attempt to fill Clark's shoes. Clark is a unique talent and has a thorough understanding of the offense, as well as an excellent rapport with Peyton Manning. It would be naive to think that anyone — even if Tamme has cast aside the demons of the past — would be able to step in and completely fill the void in production that Clark leaves behind. Tamme does not need to be Dallas Clark, he just needs to do well enough to help Indianapolis move the chains. The team has a lot of talent at the receiver position.
When — or if — everyone is healthy at receiver and the team has their full complement of wideouts in place, they may go to a four receiver set with Reggie Wayne, Anthony Gonzalez, Austin Collie, and Pierre Garcon on the field in order to get their best grouping of pass catchers together. Garcon and Gonzalez can't seem to stay out of the training room, though, and are rarely injury-free at the same time. Collie could be out for up to six weeks, since he's not sure how his body will react and heal due to the fact that he hasn't been injured since high school.
That means that Tamme may just be the next man up for right now, not the man for the balance of the season. Indianapolis will want to use a tight end on first and second down in most situations in order to have an extra blocker for the running game, but Brody Eldridge is the best blocking tight end on the roster, so he would most likely be on the field in those situations. With Tom Santi also on injured reserve, Eldridge is the team's only other option at tight end.
Eldridge faces a unique opportunity in the next few games. If the health of the receiving corps continues to be an issue, the Colts will most likely use a two tight end set as their base offense. Eldridge would be that second tight end. He will probably spend most of his time blocking, but he does already have three catches this season — which are three more than Tamme has — and he could prove himself to be far more valuable to the offense than Tamme if he proves he can catch the ball. Since Indianapolis is looking for "good enough" at the position at this point, Eldridge would provide the most value as a sufficient receiver and accomplished blocker. If Tamme struggles out of the gate, Eldridge is in a prime position to be the next man up for right now.
This is still Tamme's job to lose. Perhaps he has overcome past issues and has dedicated himself to being the Clark clone I originally thought he'd be. He's a more talented receiver than Eldridge and he is in the driver's seat. If he can showcase that talent, then the loss of Clark will hurt the offense less, though he cannot be fully replaced.
The bad news is that Clark is out for the season. The good news is that Tamme either steps up and fills more of the void than Eldridge can, or he doesn't and the Colts end up with someone that is "good enough" in the passing game and very good in the running game.
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