Dustin Keller will miss the entire season with a knee injury that leaves the Miami Dolphins without much experience at tight end, a position in which they were counting on an upgrade to enliven their offense in 2013.
Keller seriously injured his right knee during Saturday's preseason game at Houston, two people familiar with the diagnosis said Sunday. They confirmed the extent of the injury on condition of anonymity because the Dolphins made no public comment.
Keller signed a $4.25 million, one-year contract with the Dolphins in March after five seasons with the New York Jets. His injury represents a significant setback for the Dolphins, who acquired Keller to replace tight end Tony Fasano and help second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Miami ranked 30th in the NFL last year with 13 touchdown passes, but Tannehill and Keller had clicked in training camp and connected on a 22-yard touchdown pass in the second exhibition game.
"Dustin brought a lot to the table for us," Tannehill said. "He's a great player, and it's a tough situation. But at the end of the day we have to have somebody step up and play in his shoes."
Keller was carted off the field after taking a hit in the knee from the helmet of tackler D.J. Swearinger, a rookie safety. The play was legal, and Swearinger said he went low because tackling high can lead to a fine.
Swearinger sent a tweet on behalf of Keller, although he referred to him by the wrong name.
"Everybody pray 4 justin keller," Swearinger tweeted. "I pray you have a speedy recovery bro...and kill it when you get back.... DEFINITELY wasnt intentional."
One option to replace Keller is Charles Clay, who has made 34 receptions in two seasons while dividing his time between tight end and fullback. Potential replacements also include fourth-round draft pick Dion Sims, who has had a good camp, and Michael Egnew, who played in only two games last year after being drafted in the third round.
"We have other guys who have caught the ball down the middle," Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said after Saturday's game. "We've got some big targets. Egnew is a big man. Dion Sims is a big man. Clay has caught the ball down the middle before. We'll adjust."
Clay has made 16 starts at fullback and only two at tight end but said he is ready to devote more time to the latter position.
"If I'm the next up, I'm going to go out there and give it everything I've got," he said. "It's something that I feel comfortable doing, but it's something I also feel I need work on, as well."
Sims, who played at Michigan State, has showed promise as a blocker and has also caught the ball well in camp while adjusting to the NFL.
"It's just a lot faster," he said. "Everything else is pretty much the same. It's all football, X's and O's, but it's just faster. Everybody is good. There's a smaller margin for error."
Keller had hoped to parlay a big season in 2013 into a multiyear deal beginning next year. He has 17 career touchdown receptions but played in only eight games in 2012 because of hamstring and ankle injuries.
"Praying my man Dustin Keller 81 has a speedy recovery," Clay tweeted. "Great ball player but even better person."