In this edition of 2014 positional analysis, we break down the tight end position. The Cardinals managed a couple of sneaky good moments from an otherwise quiet positional unit.
Like most other NFL positions, tight ends have become more about big plays and flashy work than before. Players like Julius Thomas, Jimmy Graham, and Rob Gronkowski regularly put on shows as lineman-sized receivers. Tight ends can be very valuable for a team, and elite ones are not common commodities.
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Going into the 2014 season, tight ends on the Arizona Cardinals had scored only 11 touchdowns in five seasons. Despite large improvement in many facets for Arizona, 2014 was no different. The Cardinals only had two touchdowns from their tight ends, and overall the position was pretty quiet.
There were a couple of good takeaways, though. The new starter did bring something decently resembling stability to the position. Even better, a young talent emerged from the bottom of the roster to play a relevant role in the Cardinals playoff game. Those things can be seen as bright spots in a pretty gray positional landscape.
Nov 2, 2014; Arlington, TX, USA; Arizona Cardinals tight end John Carlson (89) in game action against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. Arizona beat Dallas 28-17. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Stats: 17 games| 54 targets| 33 receptions for 350 yards (10.6 yard average)| one touchdown
John Carlson was grabbed by the Cards after being cut by the Minnesota Vikings in March of 2014. It was an odd signing at first, given that Bruce Arians prefers blocking tight ends and Carlson is a far better receiver than blocker.
His season with Arizona wasn’t spectacular, but he was able to contribute. He netted 17 first downs for the Cardinals and made a few big catches. Despite previous concussion and other injury concerns, he remained healthy throughout the season and played in all seventeen games Arizona played, making at least one catch in each. He reached double-digit receiving yards fifteen times,usually gaining a significant amount on only one or two catches per game.
There are some stats that paint a less rosy picture. The most negative is that on 54 targets, Carlson had seven drops. In context, that means he dropped in one-eighth of the time. That’s pretty bad for a veteran tight end whose made his living as a pass-catcher. His biggest struggles came in the 10-19 yard range. From Pro Football Focus , Carlson was targeted fifteen times in that range, yet had eight receptions, two drops, and two interceptions resulted. These drops led to a steady decline in playing time.
Carlson may return in 2015 and keep his job as the Cardinals pass-catching TE. However, with the Cardinals hosting former Eagle James Casey for a visit and exploring other options at the position, his role may well diminish, especially because he doesn’t quite fit with the offensive scheme. While imperfect in 2014, Carlson certainly did boost the tight end production in Arizona.
Dec 11, 2014; St. Louis, MO, USA; Arizona Cardinals tight end Rob Housler (84) runs the ball against the St. Louis Rams during the first half at the Edward Jones Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Stats: 15 games| 18 targets| 9 receptions for 133 yards (11.1 yard average)| zero touchdowns| one fumble
Housler was drafted by Arizona in the third round in 2011. As a rookie, he didn’t contribute. 2012 and 2013 saw his production rise slightly, and it looked like he might be a Cardinal for a while. After being phased out in 2014, that looks less likely.
He played in only 31.7 percent of the Cards offensive snaps, and was used as a run blocker more than half the time. Despite that, his net PFF grade for run blocking was -6.2 . He occasionally did bring in a 15 yard gain for the Cards, but overall struggled to contribute.
He becomes a free agent on March 10, and it’s unlikely he is re-signed by Arizona. This is understandable, especially if they are looking at free agency for new additions. Maybe Housler can bounce back from a quiet 2014 in a new environment.
Nov 9, 2014; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals tight end Troy Niklas (87) against the St. Louis Rams at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Rams 31-14. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Stats: 3 games | 4 targets| 3 receptions for 38 yards (12.7 yard average)| zero touchdowns
Niklas was the Cardinals’ second round draft pick in 2014. In choosing him, Arizona bet on his excellent size and athleticism, particularly as a blocker. His NFL.com draft profile said that he had the potential to become “a bona fide, balanced, No. 1 tight end”.
Unfortunately, the realization of his talent was stalled due to injury. Early in the season, he suffered a high ankle sprain. After missing a few weeks, he returned only to aggravate it again in Week 11, and was then placed on IR. He played a very minimal role for Arizona, but should be ready for offseason work to start up his career.
There’s no reason not to bet on his reaching his pre-draft potential. In extremely limited action, he managed t o not do anything wrong, which is encouraging. If he can get healthy, he could become an integral part of an offensive unit that would be very benefited by his skill set.
Dec 7, 2014; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals tight end Darren Fells (85) and tackle Bobby Massie (70) against the Kansas City Chiefs at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Chiefs 17-14. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Stats: 10 games| 12 targets} 5 receptions for 71 yards (14.2 yard average)| zero touchdowns
With Housler and Carlson unable to consistently contribute, and Niklas injured, former basketball player Darren Fells became the Cards most effective tight end by the time the season was over. His moment came in Week 14 against the Kansas City Chiefs, where he helped another unknown, Kerwynn Williams, gain 100 rushing yards with eh support of Fells’ blocking.
In Week 14 and 15, the Cards averaged about 4.5 yards per carry, after averaging 2.7 the previous 13 weeks. The difference? Fells played 65 percent of the snaps in those two weeks, while never topping 42 percent in the weeks before that. Fells’ 6’7″, 280 pound build makes him a born run blocker.
His rise to significance gives him the opportunity to be used much more by Bruce Arians in 2015. He showed excellent blocking ability, and that’s what Arians tends to want from tight ends. The 2014 Cards had several “next man up” stories in 2014. Fells was one of them, and queitly became a good player with the potential to ascend further.
The tight end spot was as quiet in Arizona as it has been in recent years, but the cardinals success last season made it a rather moot point. With Fells rising, Niklas returning, and other options available in the free agent and draft market, it’s totally possible that the Cardinals’ tight ends can add more in the future.