"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: Troy Niklas
Experience: 3rd season
Contract status: 2016: $1,097,264 2017: $1,280,141
2015 season quick review: Despite catching just four passes last season, Niklas appeared in all 16 games and made three starts for the Cardinals. The Notre Dame product caught two touchdown passes against the Cleveland Browns in week eight, but was held without a reception from that point on until the final week of the season. Niklas played just two seasons of tight end in college, so the position is still relatively new to him, but the former second round draft pick hasn't been able to live up to expectations during his NFL career. Instead of becoming the tight end of the future for Arizona, Niklas has struggled to remain healthy and hasn't shown the same consistency Darren Fells and Jermaine Gresham have given the Cardinals' offense through the first two seasons of his career.
Projected roster status: Even though Niklas has found it challenging to crack the Cardinals' tight end rotation, it's still too early to consider giving up on a former second round draft pick. At 23 years old, Niklas has plenty of time to learn and grow and still has two years remaining on his rookie contract, so the Cardinals will keep Niklas in the fold with the hopes of seeing significant improvement from him in year three.
Projected depth chart status: With Fells and Gresham both returning to the team, Niklas finds himself as the No. 3 tight end on the Cardinals' roster. Even though the Cardinals would like him to develop into an every-down player, it's unlikely Niklas will be able to ascend into that role this season.
Position group analysis: If Niklas can become a more dependable blocker and stay healthy over the course of the entire season, Arizona will be in strong shape with its tight end unit. As we've mentioned previously, the Cardinals love using two-tight end formations, so there's certainly enough reps to go around for Fells, Gresham and Niklas to all contribute in meaningful ways. Though Niklas may not be a threat as a pass-catcher at this point in his career, the Cardinals prioritize inline tight ends who can block defensive ends and linebackers and Niklas' 6-foot-6, 270-pound frame makes him a weapon in this regard.
Moving forward: With two years left on his rookie contract, Niklas hasn't quite reached a make-or-break point in his career, but the Cardinals are likely hoping Niklas makes his biggest strides yet in year three of his career. Both Fells and Gresham have contracts set to expire at the end of the 2016 season, and Fells is currently playing in the final year of a "futures" contract which pays him just $600,000 this season. That means moving forward, Arizona may not have the resources to pay both Fells and Gresham the money they will command in the open market in free agency, so the team would certainly benefit from Niklas becoming a starter-caliber player this season. If that happens, it's conceivable Arizona will choose between Fells and Gresham this offseason, with Niklas sliding into a top-two spot on the depth chart in the final year of his rookie contract. If Niklas doesn't improve his consistency over the next two seasons, it will be difficult to bring him back when his rookie deal does expire in 2017.
Key skill: Becoming a red zone threat
Upon exiting college in 2014, Niklas was praised for his abilities as a pass catcher and a route runner and many believed Niklas would be able to contribute as a full service tight end early in his NFL career. Up until this point, however, Niklas has just seven catches over the course of two seasons and hasn't panned out as a receiver.
The Cardinals don't rely on their tight ends as much in the passing game as some other teams do, but when Arizona enters the red zone, the team's offense can really benefit from having reliable targets at the tight end position. With the way the Cardinals operate in two-tight end sets, it's easy for the Cardinals to succeed in play-action sets in the red zone because defenses are already accustomed to accounting for tight ends as blockers. If players like Fells and Niklas become great at selling blocks on play-action fakes, they can come wide open and give offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin a wealth of play calls to choose from.
Last season, Niklas caught two touchdown passes in the red zone against Cleveland, and on both occasions, Niklas found himself in wide open space. In the image below, we see the Cardinals' pre-snap alignment, with both Niklas and Gresham aligned to the left side of the formation.
After the snap, both players break down the field and run directly at defensive backs. Niklas didn't have the cleanest release off of the line of scrimmage, but sometimes that actually helps disguise what's happening on play-action play calls. Initially, Niklas broke like he was going to block the outside linebacker, which helped give Palmer time to throw. As you see below, the Cardinals' quarterback has a clean pocket, and he's doing his part in disguising the play by looking off the Browns' defenders.
After setting his defender up by looking to the inside, Niklas breaks on an out route at the goal line and comes wide open. Moments later, Palmer delivers the pass and Niklas has an easy time hauling in his first career touchdown reception.
If Niklas can improve on his route running and sell blocks well, he could turn into a nice asset for the Cardinals in the red zone. Running patterns in tight spaces is a difficult task for receivers, but because of Niklas' size and athleticism, he provides a bigger, rangy target for Palmer. Furthermore, the Cardinals' scheme should make these types of play calls commonplace in the red zone, because the team runs the ball effectively in their two-tight end sets.
The key to becoming a red zone target for Niklas isn't going to be developing better timing with his quarterback. Instead, it's going to be developing a reputation as a dependable blocker. If the Cardinals can incorporate Niklas into the offense in the middle of the field and defenses begin to respect his ability as a blocker, his presence in the red zone won't tip off play-action play calls. The more the Cardinals' red zone formations and initial movements at the line of scrimmage look like their regular running plays, the easier it becomes for the team's tight ends to come open on play-action red zone attempts.
Overall value: To this point in his career, it's fair to say Niklas hasn't lived up to the value second round picks are expected to provide. Even though rookie contracts don't cost teams a whole lot on the bottom line, drafting well is a key to sustained success in the NFL and it hurts franchises when early round selections don't become playmakers. Entering year three, Niklas is looking to live up to the value his contract suggests he's worth, and for the Cardinals, that would mean Niklas would need to produce around the level of a No. 2 tight end as opposed to a No. 3 tight end. Niklas' cap hit is the 57th-largest of all NFL tight ends, and with the Cardinals' top two players at the position entering the final seasons of their contracts, Niklas' improvement would give the team flexibility and value moving forward.