"Making the Cut"
As the Arizona Cardinals begin their quest to cut the team's roster size from 90 to 53 by the end of the preseason, we're taking a look at the key players at each position group and determining their odds of making the final cut.
Player: Darren Fells
Experience: 3rd season
Contract status: 2016: $600,000
2015 season quick review: Fells is a fascinating player with a unique background who came into his own during the 2015 season as he shared time with Jermaine Gresham as the Cardinals' primary tight end. Fells didn't play college football and spent his first few seasons out of college playing basketball professionally overseas. After transitioning to football, Fells spent the 2013 season on the Carolina Panthers practice squad before joining the Cardinals in 2014. Last season, Fells set career highs in starts with 12, receptions with 21 and receiving yards with 311. Though Fells' route to the NFL was certainly unconventional, his 2015 season proved he belongs in the professional ranks.
Projected roster status: Entering the 2014 season, few would have guessed Fells would have progressed to the point where he merited consideration for a roster spot. Just two seasons later, Fells is a virtual lock for the Cardinals' roster as the former basketball player took over a key role within Arizona's offense last season and showed continued development throughout the year.
Projected depth chart status: The Cardinals are one of a handful of NFL teams that list two tight ends as starters on their depth chart, so technically speaking, both Gresham and Fells are considered starting tight ends. The Cardinals actually use quite a few two-tight end formations, so designating two players as starters is indicative of how often the team incorporates its tight ends into the offense. If Fells continues to progress as rapidly as he has over the past few seasons, he could overtake Gresham and earn the lion's share of the reps, but regardless, the Cardinals have a demonstrated need for two tight ends so there should be plenty of playing time for both "starters" to go around.
Position group analysis: Even though Gresham's production dropped off statistically last season, Arizona still enters the season with a strong unit at tight end that features a handful of players who are realistic red zone targets for quarterback Carson Palmer. With Gresham, Fells, and Notre Dame product Troy Niklas in the fold, Palmer has three athletic targets all standing at least 6-foot-5 who bring different skill sets and abilities to the team's offense. As long as the Cardinals stay healthy at the position, which has been difficult to do in recent seasons, Arizona has plenty of options within this unit.
Moving forward: Entering the final year of a "futures" contract, Fells is set to make just $600,000 and contribute as one of the team's primary starters at tight end for the second straight season. Coming into the NFL, there were obvious doubts about Fells' ability to take to the game after playing basketball for so many years, but Fells has done an excellent job transitioning to the sport and his frame and athleticism have enabled him to become a success story. If Fells enjoys another strong year and demonstrates even more improvement, he could be a hot commodity this offseason. Though Fells is already 30 years old, his body hasn't been subjected to the same physical stress as other players of his age, so it's possible Fells could play at a high level later into his career than many other tight ends. With that in mind, the Cardinals could look into extending Fells an offer that brings him back to the team for at least two more seasons.
Key skill: Run blocking
Fells' run-blocking abilities are a primary reason why he began cutting into Gresham's playing time, as his 6-foot-7 frame coupled with an improved technique have helped him become the Cardinals' best run blocking tight end. This season, the Cardinals will need Fells to continue to prove his value as a run blocker, especially when he's aligned on the right side of offensive formations.
As the Cardinals replace both a starting right guard and a starting right tackle, the team understands the fluidity of the right side of its offensive line. Nevertheless, Arizona knows it has an advantage in putting a run blocker like Fells outside of right tackle D.J. Humphries because it gives the Cardinals an extra blocker in certain formations who has the physicality to take on both defensive ends and linebackers.
The Cardinals love off tackle run plays, and the success of those plays often depends on the effectiveness of a tight end's block. In the image below, we see a pre-snap alignment prior to an off tackle run in which Fells will be asked to kick his man to the outside in hopes of opening up a running lane.
Fells is actually one of two tight ends aligned to the right side of the offensive line in this formation, and his job is to widen out the contain defender and open up a path for Andre Ellington.
At the snap, Fells fires off the ball and maintains a low pad level which allows him to gain leverage against his defender. Fells has success as a run-blocker when he's quick and determined with his feet, because he has a strong upper body and a large frame that make it difficult for defenders to escape his grasp. Once Ellington hits the hole, Fells continues to run his feet and blow his defender backwards, which is a sign that he's been in complete control of his block throughout the play.
Even with Ellington hitting the hole, Fells is still making an effort to square his shoulders up with the defender in front of him to prevent him from breaking loose from Fells' block. With long arms and a strong base, Fells can turn defenders faster than many other tight ends, and it makes him an ideal blocker in off tackle plays like the one the Cardinals ran in this scenario. Though Ellington was tripped up from behind, Fells executed his block very well and helped break open a large hole that could have given his running back a chance for a big gain if not for a failed block from an interior lineman.
This year, the Cardinals will need Fells to continue to be an asset as a run blocker while developing more of a presence as a pass catcher. Fells only caught 21 passes last season, but with his size and speed, he could give the Cardinals another legitimate red zone option.
Overall value: Through our "Making the cut" series, we've already discussed the importance of players like David Johnson and John Brown who provide the Cardinals with consistent production and cost the team less than the average NFL starter because they are playing out rookie contracts. In the case of Fells, he's an undrafted asset playing out a "futures contract," which means he's making just $600,000 this season and was signed to a deal that pays him even less than a late round draft pick. Any time a team receives even the slightest of contributions from a player on a futures contract, an organization is able to recognize significant value from that contract and can then use funds to pay other assets the type of money their production merits. Fells gives the Cardinals an extraordinary value as a starter-caliber player, and the team knows this is the last year it will be able to capitalize on his contract before Fells commands the money he deserves.