"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.
Age: Christian: 24, Momah: 26, Valles: 23
Experience: No member of the trio has regular season NFL experience
Contract status: Christian: 2016-$463,195, 2017-$628,195, 2018-$718,198, Momah: 2016-$450,000, Valles: 2016-$452,333, 2017-$542,333, 2018: $632,334
2015 season quick review: Christian was the final player selected in the 2015 NFL Draft and earned the "Mr. Irrelevant" moniker coming out of Louisville. In Christian's final preseason contest, he suffered a knee injury that landed him on the Cardinals' injured reserve list which prevented him from playing out the season on the practice squad. Momah also spent the entire 2015 season on injured reserve list, but unlike Christian, Momah looked like a strong bet to make the Cardinals' final roster last season. The converted wide receiver practiced as the No. 2 tight end throughout much of training camp last year because of injuries to Jermaine Gresham and Troy Niklas, but a knee injury late in training camp sidelined him for the duration of the season. As for Valles, the undrafted free agent played out his final season with the Monmouth Hawks and caught 22 passes for 236 yards in just his second year playing at tight end.
Projected roster status: Even though Arizona kept just three tight ends in 2015, it wouldn't come as a surprise to us if the Cardinals kept four tight ends on the roster this season and made three active on game days. Though head coach Bruce Arians has only kept three tight ends on the active roster in each of the last two seasons, the Cardinals did hold spots for four tight ends in Arians' first season with the team in 2013. With the Cardinals' reliance on multi-tight end formations, Arizona may consider taking a longer look at a player like Momah who had a strong camp last season and could probably contribute on special teams. The caveat here is that the Cardinals drafted players like Marqui Christian and Harlan Miller who will be expected to play significant special teams roles, so there may not be enough playing time to go around to justify keeping a fourth tight end. We think it's about a 60-40 proposition Arizona keeps three tight ends as opposed to four, so if the team sticks with three, we believe the Cardinals will keep one tight end on the practice squad.
Projected depth chart status: Barring an injury to Darren Fells or Gresham, it would surprise us if any of the three players here became one of the Cardinals' top two tight ends. Still, if Momah remains healthy and challenges for a roster spot, we think he has the type of skill set to challenge Niklas for the No. 3 tight end role, even though Niklas is a former second round draft pick who will likely receive more opportunities early in fall camp. Momah is an athletic specimen at 6-foot-7 and 250 pounds, but a lot will depend on how he recovers from the knee injury he suffered last year and how willing the Cardinals are to give him opportunities in practice if Fells, Gresham and Niklas are healthy.
Position group analysis: The Cardinals will once again enter fall camp with three tight ends in Fells, Gresham and Niklas who will be tough to beat out for the top three spots on the depth chart. Last season, injuries hurt the unit and forced the team to incorporate players like Momah and Christian more than the coaching staff probably would have liked, so if the overall durability of the team's tight ends is a question mark this fall, the situation could become fluid once again. A key for the Cardinals to operate their scheme at full strength is to have a full complement of tight ends, and on paper, the team will enter training camp with plenty of options to explore.
Moving forward: In all likelihood, the Cardinals don't have long term plans for Christian, Momah or Valles. The reality of the team's situation at tight end is that both Fells and Gresham are dependable blockers who can execute pretty much everything the team asks of them, so the focus of the coaching staff and management is to ensure the top players on the depth chart are prepared on a week-to-week basis. Even if a player like Momah makes the roster this season, opportunities may be limited and the Cardinals likely wouldn't include a player with a small amount of experience in the long term vision for the organization. All three players can take things one day at a time this fall, as they will be laser-focused on battling for a roster spot this season.
Key skill: Inline blocking
The role and skill set required for tight ends varies on a team-by-team basis in the NFL, as inline tight ends, H-backs and "flex" players are all technically lumped together as "tight ends" despite having different abilities. Arians and the Cardinals have put a premium on inline tight ends, especially those who can act as a sixth offensive lineman and help pave the way in the running game.
While H-backs and flex players are more beneficial to fantasy football owners because they catch passes more frequently, inline tight ends are more valuable to the Cardinals and Fells is the perfect example of someone who executes that role. The Cardinals need their tight ends to have the versatility to block both defensive linemen and linebackers because the team primarily uses a zone-blocking scheme that asks blockers to move well laterally and execute blocks in space.
Fells has the size at 6-foot-7 and the athleticism as a former college basketball player to execute these types of blocks, and players like Christian and Momah can learn from the film of successful Cardinals' tight ends.
While inline tight ends are often thought of as more brutish players who don't have the receiving skills other tight ends do, Gresham successfully transitioned to the Cardinals' offense from a scheme in Cincinnati that incorporated him as a pass-catcher more often. Gresham's success was enabled by the fact he has strong fundamentals as a blocker and he has the speed and footwork to fire off the line of line of scrimmage and get to blocks in open space.
Gresham and Fells' presence as athletic inline tight ends gives hope to players like Momah who can look at the top of the depth chart and see the Cardinals' still value the type of athleticism and speed a former wide receiver brings to the position.
Overall value: As we've mentioned in previous "Making the cut" pieces about fringe players who may or may not make the roster, the Cardinals will only begin to evaluate the overall value a player brings to the organization if he makes the team. If a player like Momah is taking up a 53-man roster spot, it will still cost the Cardinals less than $600,000 over the course of the year, so any production he does bring is coming at what's practically the cheapest rate possible to pay an NFL player. Another important factor to consider in this situation is if the Cardinals do carry four tight ends this season as opposed to three, the special teams value of the fourth tight end should be assessed relative to the type of production an extra defensive back or wide receiver would bring to the team. Does keeping a fourth tight end mean making sacrifices on a punt or kickoff coverage unit? Or does that fourth tight end still contribute in valuable special teams capacities? As the Cardinals begin to whittle the roster down from 90 players to 53 in fall camp, the team knows it must closely analyze the value each player competing for a final roster spot could potentially bring over the course of a full season.