Tight end Clark reaches six-year deal with Colts

INDIANAPOLIS -- Indianapolis tight end Dallas Clark can at least buy a ticket to Hawaii for the next six years if the Pro Bowl voters continue to overlook his talents.

Colts president Bill Polian said Wednesday that Clark signed a new six-year contract that virtually assures Peyton Manning of finding one of his favorite targets for the rest of his career. Terms were not disclosed, but a source close to the negotiations said the deal will make Clark the NFL's highest-paid player at his position even though he's never been selected to the Pro Bowl. The source spoke on condition of anonymity because of a clause in the contract.

The move came a day after the Colts announced they designated Clark their franchise player.

"Mr. Polian and I had engaged in ongoing conversations since the fall with the intent desire to keep Dallas with the Colts till the end of his career," said Neil Cornrich, Clark's agent. "It's been close for quite a while and we just refined it."

As the franchise player, Clark would have been guaranteed $4.55 million, the average of the top five tight end salaries in the NFL. But the long-term contract means the Colts can make the deal more affordable under the NFL's complex salary cap structure. The cap is expected to be about $123 million this season.

For the Colts, it's their second major move in two days.

On Wednesday, the Colts signed starting guard Ryan Lilja to a five-year deal that team owner Jim Irsay said was worth about $19 million and included a signing bonus of roughly $4.5 million.

Lilja and Clark now join the growing list of Colts' multimillionaires. The members already include two-time league MVP Peyton Manning, Pro Bowl receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, former sacks champion Dwight Freeney and reigning defensive player of the year Bob Sanders. All of those deals have been completed since March 2004, and Freeney and Sanders are also the highest-paid players at their position.

It may mean the Colts will have to release other players, perhaps even defensive tackle Anthony McFarland.

"In terms of trying to finalize the roster, it will take some more work," Irsay said. "Again, you try to make your judgments about where the money is being spent and anticipate where future contracts will come in."

Clearly, though, the Colts didn't want to lose either Clark or Lilja, and keeping them, Polian believes, has given Indy a jump on the free-agent market.

"Obviously, any time you can get players of that caliber done, it's a positive," Polian said. "The net is that we've got Bob on a long-term contract, we've got Dallas on a long-term contract and we've got Ryan on a long-term contract. So we've had a hell of a free agency year."

It also resolves the Colts' biggest question mark heading into free agency. Starting guard Jake Scott and backup defensive end
Josh Thomas are now the biggest names still scheduled to become unrestricted free agents.

Clark, the team's first-round pick in the 2003 draft, caught a career-high 58 passes for 618 yards and 11 touchdowns last season -- all were franchise records for tight ends.

And aside from Manning, the happiest man on the Colts roster might be three-time Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday, who makes the blocking calls in Indy's no-huddle offense.

"That's big," Saturday said. "Congrats to D-Clark. And how great is it that Lilja signs a well-deserved contract. I'm glad to have them because both guys have been important pieces in this offense."

Clark's productivity has improved steadily since his rookie season, when he caught 29 passes in 10 games before breaking his leg and missing the rest of the season. His yardage totals improved each of the next two seasons and while his numbers dropped in 2006, after missing four straight games with a right knee injury, he caught 21 passes for 317 yards and had a major impact in the Colts' Super Bowl run.

But still no Pro Bowl selection.

Clark's most valuable asset to the Colts, however, doesn't appear the stat sheet. He can play tight end, play the slot receiver or even line up in the backfield as a blocking back, a combination that has allowed the Colts to continue to play with three receivers when they're short-handed.

"He's a very unique player," Polian said. "He gives us a lot of flexibility we otherwise would not have."

To Clark, the crux of the deal means he won't have to move, and for the fun-loving Clark, that's enough satisfaction.

"He's incredibly excited for the opportunity to play his entire career for one team," Cornrich said. "He considers it an honor to play for coach [Tony] Dungy and be part of an offense led by Peyton Manning."