"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: Jermaine Gresham
Experience: 7th NFL season
Contract status: 2016: $3,468,750
2015 season in review: For the first time in Gresham's impressive NFL career, he was not the most productive tight end on his team. In 2015, Gresham took somewhat of a backseat to Darren Fells, who caught three more passes than Gresham did and cut into the veteran's playing time as Fells developed into a key blocking asset. Gresham spent the first five seasons of his career as a primary target in Cincinnati's passing offense, but after signing a one-year contract to play for the Cardinals, he didn't enjoy the same opportunities in his first season playing with quarterback Carson Palmer. While the transition to the Cardinals offense required Gresham to spend more time blocking at the line of scrimmage, the 27-year-old has youth on his side and looks capable of putting together a few more years of high-level production if Arizona does look to incorporate its tight ends into the passing game more often.
Projected roster status: After the Cardinals opted to re-sign Gresham to a one year contract, it's not a foregone conclusion that his roster spot is completely secure. Nevertheless, it would come as a fairly significant surprise if the Cardinals cut Gresham at the end of training camp to save cap room, as the team values big-bodied tight ends and hasn't received the type of consistency it hoped for when general manager Steve Keim drafted Troy Niklas out of Notre Dame. Gresham demonstrated his value as a blocker last season, and with an offense that uses quite a few two-tight end formations, Gresham's roster spot should be safe.
Projected depth chart status: Last season, both Gresham and Fells technically started 12 games for Arizona and each player was listed as a starting tight end on the depth chart as Arizona elects to list two tight ends instead of an extra receiver or a fullback among its starting 11. We anticipate that will stay the same for the Cardinals this season, as Gresham and Fells are both starter-caliber players who play pivotal roles as run blockers for Arizona's offense. Gresham reportedly took less money to come back to the Cardinals on a one-year contract, and we believe he would have only made that decision if his role would look the same in 2016.
Position group analysis: With the emergence of Fells, Arizona now has a much deeper unit at tight end than it has enjoyed in recent seasons. Gresham is a proven commodity in the NFL, and coupled with Fells, the Cardinals know they have two starter-caliber players on the depth chart at all times. Bringing Gresham back to the team was a priority for Arizona despite his statistical drop off because the Cardinals depend on physical run blockers at tight end, and he gives the team plenty to work with in that regard. If Niklas can improve on his consistency and Gresham and Fells perform as they did in 2015, Arizona could have one of the deepest units in the league this season.
Moving forward: Even at just 27 years old, Gresham didn't command a long term deal in the offseason and returned to Arizona on a one-year contract. That suggests the market for tight ends is very top heavy, with only eight players commanding contracts upward of six million dollars annually. The Cardinals know Gresham's most productive seasons are probably behind him, but they still value the versatility he brings to the offense and his abilities as a blocker so it's conceivable Arizona may look into re-signing Gresham to a multi-year deal this offseason. With Fells' contract also up after the season and Niklas still looking to break out, the Cardinals' future with Gresham and at the tight end position in general is fluid.
Key skill: Run blocking
Our assessment of Gresham and Fells' key skill (run blocking) is more of a reflection of the Cardinals' offensive philosophy than it is a reflection of their skills as players. While Fells has only played in the Cardinals' offensive system at the NFL level, there's plenty of film out on Gresham from his Cincinnati days that shows his abilities as a pass catcher.
In his three seasons as Cardinals head coach, head coach Bruce Arians has never had a tight end top 39 receptions (Rob Housler, 2013) and the Cardinals ask their tight ends to perform inline blocks at the line of scrimmage more often than many other teams. Last season, Gresham had by far the fewest receptions of his career, but he still made an impact and commanded a $3.4 million salary in 2016 because of his blocking abilities.
In many of the Cardinals' two-tight end sets, Gresham is often asked to play inside of Fells on the same side of a formation and often aligns as the tight end closest to Arizona's offensive tackle. In the image below, we see a formation where the Cardinals actually have Fells aligned as a true fullback, with Gresham set up as a tight end as the end man on the line of scrimmage.
On this play, the Cardinals ask Gresham to hold his own against the Seahawks' defensive end while Fells leads around the outside in an attempt to kick out a linebacker and clear a path for Chris Johnson. Gresham is able to win his block at the snap, because he fires off the ball and widens out his base while maintaining better leverage than his counterpart. This is arguably the most important block on the play too, because a misstep from Gresham could cause Johnson to redirect his track before he reaches the line of scrimmage.
As the Cardinals' left tackle and left guard execute a combo block to force the Seahawks' defensive tackle back off the ball, Gresham is on an island. The key to successful off-tackle running plays is strong blocks at the point of attack, and with Gresham's ability to handle defensive ends and linebackers, the Cardinals know the holes will be there for their backs.
As you see in the image above, Johnson redirects his track to the inside, and when Gresham's man tries to disengage and come off the block, Gresham pancakes him to the ground. This is exactly the type of block the Cardinals need their tight ends to execute to have success in the run game, and Gresham's ability to handle one-on-one blocks is a primary reason why Arizona brought him back for the 2016 season.
Overall value: Anyone who has followed the trajectory of Gresham's career from a fantasy standpoint could point to the alarming drop off in production in 2016 and suggest that perhaps one of the more dependable tight ends in the league is now washed up. However, it's important to consider what head coach Bruce Arians asks of his tight ends. Arians has never been too reliant on tight ends for production in the passing game, and instead prefers they serve as formidable blockers. Last season, both Gresham and Fells enjoyed success blocking, especially in the running game, and Arizona opted to bring Gresham back in 2016 after his one-year deal expired. Considering what the Cardinals ask of their tight ends and noting that Gresham's cap hit is just the 16th-highest of any tight end in the NFL, Gresham actually provides Arizona with a good value. While he may not be an attractive pick up for fantasy owners any longer, Arizona felt confident Gresham could contribute again in 2016 and resigned him to a contract that is closely representative of the value he brings the offense.