Arizona Cardinals: Full Position Breakdown and Depth Chart Analysis at Tight End
Last season, Arizona Cardinals tight ends accounted for just over 20 percent of Carson Palmer’s completions, almost 18 percent of his yards and just under 21 percent of his touchdown passes. All three of those numbers ranked in the bottom third of the NFL.
That is why general manager Steve Keim signed oft-injured tight end John Carlson this offseason. It’s also why he selected former Notre Dame tight end Troy Niklas in Round 2 of the 2014 NFL draft.
Carlson and Niklas are two pieces to Arizona’s tight end puzzle that many have high hopes for, and rightfully so.
When healthy throughout his six-year career, Carlson has been a solid inline blocker and a threat down the seam. Niklas could have the best upside of all rookie tight ends this season, and despite a hernia and a broken hand that kept him out of OTAs and minicamp, he could fight for plenty of early playing time this season.
We continue breaking down the Cardinals roster by position. Shall we take a look-see at Arizona’s group of tight ends? You know we shall, so let’s hop to it.
Cardinals Trivia: Who is the only tight end in NFL history to have at least 50 receptions and 1,000 yards while averaging at least 20.0 yards per catch in a single season?
Starter 1: Rob Housler
As of now, Rob Housler is the starting tight end for Bruce Arians’ offense. Until we see otherwise at training camp and in preseason games, that’s how it will be.
Is it possible Housler has improved so much that he retains his starting role and thrives in 2014? Sure, why not. But is it logical? Not so much.
Housler had an opportunity in 2013 to take hold of the starting role and run with it. All he had to do was pay attention on the field and catch footballs Palmer threw to him. He did a decent job at the latter, but the former haunted him at times.
Do you remember when Palmer hit Housler in the hand with a pass as the speedy tight end ran a dig against the Panthers?
Arians said the fourth-year tight end has had a “fantastic” offseason, according to Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com. That’s all well and good, but until the pads go on in late July, Housler may as well look like the best tight end in NFL history—it all means nothing.
He has much to prove in this, his “contract year.” Set to be a free agent after the 2014 season, Housler would do himself a lot of good to emerge as the deep threat and all-around receiving target he is supposed to be.
Starter 2: John Carlson
Shoulder injuries and a history of concussions have Carlson all but forgotten in the NFL. The 30-year-old has been placed on the season-ending injured reserve list two of the past three years, and because of that he is now with his third NFL team.
The Cardinals are hoping he has something left in him after all the injuries, because they need it in the worst way. Much like left tackle, tight end has been an anomaly for as long as many fans can remember. Even when Kurt Warner led the team to the Super Bowl and back-to-back NFC West titles, the Cardinals did not have a force at tight end.
Now with Carlson and a heap of potential No. 1 tight ends, one of them should emerge as the clear starter and a threat as a receiver, right?
Backup: Troy Niklas
The 52nd overall pick in May, Niklas is a large individual who is still a newbie at tight end. Notre Dame offered him a scholarship as a defensive end, but he spent his last two seasons in South Bend learning the intricacies of run-blocking, pass protection and route-running.
He’s a natural in all three aspects mentioned, and his upside is why Keim was more than OK taking him as high as the middle of Round 2. It was initially thought that Niklas would step in and start from Day 1, but with multiple injuries this offseason it’s best to have a wait-and-see mentality with the young behemoth.
After all, he’s not the first massive tight end drafted by the Cardinals who ended up having injury problems.
Remember Leonard Pope?
There is probably no need to worry about Niklas’ health yet, but it is troubling to see another second-round pick with early injuries—you know, like Ryan Williams—struggle to get on the field.
Should Niklas recover from his broken hand and develop as Keim and the Cardinals hope, he could become the best blocking and red-zone tight end in the NFL. That title currently belongs to Dallas Cowboys veteran Jason Witten, who has held his unofficial position as the NFL's best tight end for years.
Niklas could be the next Witten.
No. 4: Jake Ballard
Having former Ohio State standout Jake Ballard as the No. 4 tight end shows how deep the position suddenly is. He could just as well start for the Cardinals this season.
But Ballard, like two of the three other tight ends mentioned so far, has a history of injury and was all but forgotten as well.
But the Patriots cut him before Week 1, and he waited until November before Arizona called him into action. He played in the final eight games with three starts for the Cardinals, hauling in seven receptions for 75 yards and two touchdowns—Ballard has more touchdowns in eight games with the Cardinals than Housler does in 40 games.
His knack for blocking and getting open in the red zone makes him an intriguing option in 2014. Though Housler is listed here as the starter, Ballard could end up as “TE1” come September; everyone listed so far has about an equal chance to start Week 1, for that matter.
No. 5: Darren Fells
In case you’re unaware of the type of tight end Arians likes, here’s this: Carlson is 6’5” and weighs 248 pounds; Ballard is 6’6 and weighs 256 pounds; and Niklas is 6’6-1/2” and weighs 270 pounds.
But Darren Fells is bigger than all of them. He stands 6’7” and weighs a hefty 281 pounds.
He’s not much of a receiver, but as a blocker, he’s essentially an extra offensive tackle on the field. That won’t help him make the roster this September, but you get the idea: Arians fancies large tight ends.
Fells is a former college basketball player. He spent his four seasons at UC-Irvine as a power forward, averaging 10.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game. But not every former college hoops player translates the way Jimmy Graham or Antonio Gates did.
Fells’ final college basketball season was in 2007-2008. He signed with the Seattle Seahawks before the 2013 season after impressing coaches in a tryout, but he never played for them and was released before the season. Arizona signed him to the practice squad, where he spent the final 12 weeks of the season.
As the fifth tight end on a team that has four legitimate starting candidates, Fells is on the outside looking in. The practice squad is his likely destination so he can further develop, possibly earning a spot on the roster at a later date.
No. 6: Andre Hardy
Out of the league since Oakland signed him as an undrafted free agent in April 2012 then cut him a month later, Andre Hardy is nothing more than a camp body. The Cardinals signed him to a futures contract in January, which means no other franchise can sign him during the offseason until Arizona sees enough and releases him.
He’s another sport-switcher, coming over from the world of college basketball as Fells did recently. Also like Fells, Hardy comes from a California university—Cal State Fullerton—and has little-to-no chance of making the 53-man roster this September.
Hardy put up the following unofficial measurables before the 2012 draft, per YouTube:
- Height: 6’6”
- Weight: 250 pounds
- 40-yard dash: 4.70 seconds
- Short shuttle: 4.45 seconds
- 3-cone: 7.00 seconds
- Vertical: 41 inches
- Broad jump: 10’2”
- Bench press: 25 reps
His height, weight and 40 time compare favorably to Todd Heap, but his overall athleticism is hard to judge because of the insane vertical leap.
Since 1999, only four tight ends have recorded a vertical of 40-plus inches, according to NFLCombineResults.com: Dorin Dickerson (43.5 inches in 2010), Virgil Green (42.5 inches in 2011), Vernon Davis (42.0 inches in 2006) and Jared Cook (41.0 inches in 2009).
Hardy is not a burner, but the YouTube video linked above shows he has an ability to run routes with a good burst off the line. He appears to have a quicker get-off from a two-point stance than from a three-point stance, which is understandable.
It’s unlikely he sticks around to make the practice squad; but who really knows? At this point, it’s all just guessing.
Who is the only tight end in NFL history to have at least 50 receptions and 1,000 yards while averaging at least 20.0 yards per catch in a single season?
Answer: Jackie Smith, St. Louis Cardinals, 1967
The original deep threat tight end, Jackie Smith spent his entire Hall of Fame career with the Cardinals, save for his final NFL season, which he spent with the Dallas Cowboys. As good as he was for so many years, he is perhaps best remembered for the picture above, which is his immediate reaction after he dropped a potential game-tying touchdown in Super Bowl XIII.
Former Cowboys radio announcer Verne Lundquist said it best following the infamous drop: “Bless his heart; he’s got to be the sickest man in America!”
But that was 1978. Fifteen years of being battered by defenses while with the Cardinals took its toll, and he failed his physical before the ’78 season, according to a report from Tom Archdeacon of the Miami News the day after the Steelers downed the Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII (h/t Deadspin).
In 1967, Smith finished with the following statistics (NFL rank in parenthesis):
- 56 receptions (7th)
- 1,205 yards (3rd)
- 9 touchdowns (5th)
- 21.5 yards per reception (4th)
- 86.1 yards per game (3rd)
- 1,291 yards from scrimmage (2nd)
Those stats from a tight end were unheard of back then.
His Cardinals finished that season 5-6-1, missing the playoffs as they did in all but two seasons he donned Cardinal Red.
Though he is best-known for one drop on the biggest stage at the end of his career, Smith is in the Hall of Fame as a member of the Cardinals. He’s the franchise leader in games (198), receptions (480), receiving yards (7,918) and touchdowns (40) by a tight end.
Side note: It is a complete travesty that Jackie Smith is not in the Ring of Honor. Kurt Warner being inducted before Smith is incredible. Though the Cardinals organization has historically been a doormat for other NFL teams, the fact that the Bidwill family has yet to honor its only Hall of Fame tight end is laughable.
Something must be done. Smith needs to be in the Ring of Honor… Hell, they should retire his No. 81 jersey while they’re at it.