Throughout the Bruce Arians era, the Arizona Cardinals have traditionally bounced between keeping three and four tight ends on their 53-man active roster.
This season, though, the Cardinals have three tight ends capable of fulfilling starting roles on their depth chart and may have the need to salvage a roster spot for an additional defensive back or an extra offensive lineman.
With versatile playmakers in Jermaine Gresham, Darren Fells and Troy Niklas lining Arizona's roster, on the surface it looks like 2016 may be the right season for the Cardinals to scrape by with three tight ends and stash a fourth emergency player on their practice squad. Furthermore, with a handful of inexperienced draft picks like Cole Toner, Marqui Christian and Harlan Miller in the fold this year, Arizona may structure its roster differently to protect those rookies on the active roster while building depth around them to ensure the Cardinals don't enter the season with any obvious blind spots.
Still, there's a way for Arizona to keep a fourth tight end on the active roster while ensuring the Cardinals don't have to subject the team to cutting a draft pick and putting a player through waivers just to keep that player on the practice squad.
And after watching two preseason contests and a number of the Cardinals' training camp practices, it's clear Arizona stands to benefit from keeping former undrafted rookie and preseason standout Ifeanyi Momah on the team's final 53-man roster.
Why keep Momah?
Throughout camp, Momah has separated himself as the front-runner for the fourth tight end role ahead of former seventh round draft choice Gerald Christian and undrafted rookie Hakeem Valles. But why do the Cardinals need a fourth tight end in a season in which the team has other roster needs in mind?
Momah possesses the most raw athleticism of any Cardinals' tight end including the trio in front of him on the depth chart, and he's worked to become the team's most fluid route runner. While Gresham, Fells and Niklas have somewhat redundant skill sets, Momah brings an element of unpredictability to a position that plays a key role in Arians' offense.
While Momah's receiver-first mentality may not gel perfectly with Arians' offensive philosophy, his potential to aid the team as a route runner and as a special teams asset allows Arizona to open up the field. In all likelihood, a ninth offensive lineman or a third quarterback wouldn't play on game day, but Momah would.
During the preseason, the Cardinals first team offense has operated out of 12-personnel (two tight end) sets on nearly half of its plays. If a player like Gresham or Fells could use a break, Momah has the type of speed that Arizona could easily find ways to creatively deploy on game days to create matchup issues.
Momah's on-field presence is enough to keep defenses off balance, and if the Cardinals use his skill set in ways that favor his strengths as a pass-catcher ahead of his weaknesses as a blocker, Arizona's offense stands to benefit.
Keeping eight offensive linemen
Assuming the Cardinals keep 25 players on each side of the ball and three specialists, Arizona could stand to keep Momah by keeping eight offensive linemen as opposed to nine on the team's roster. By keeping the team's starting five intact and using Evan Boehm and Earl Watford as the team's game day backups, Arizona could keep Toner on the 53-man roster and leave him as one of the team's seven inactive players on game day.
The Cardinals traditionally only activate seven offensive linemen to their 46-man game day roster, so Watford could serve as the sixth man up should any lineman need a breather or if any member of the starting five up front suffers an injury. Assuming the Cardinals' depth chart holds steady, Boehm would serve as the primary backup to A.Q. Shipley at center, and in emergency scenarios, the Cardinals could play Boehm at center, Shipley at guard, and plug in Watford at any other spot on the line where a need exists.
Keeping two quarterbacks
This is most likely move for the Cardinals when Arians and general manager Steve Keim work together to create Arizona's final roster if the team elects to keep a fourth tight end. Considering the Cardinals are content with Drew Stanton and Arians has talked openly about only carrying two quarterbacks, it's an uphill road for Matt Barkley or Jacob Coker to turn enough heads over the final two weeks of preseason practices to make the team.
Unless the Cardinals have serious concerns about Stanton's abilities as a backup, it makes more sense for the team to shore up its special teams units and add an element to its offense with an athlete like Momah than it does to hang onto a quarterback who may never see the field.