In a day and age where spread concepts developed at the college level have proliferated throughout the professional game, the Arizona Cardinals are among the teams that have stayed relatively true to traditional Pro-Style offense principles.
Cardinals' head coach Bruce Arians' insistence on using two tight-end, 12-personnel sets has prevented Arizona from completely morphing into a spread offense, even though Arians eschews the idea of a fullback and loads his roster with vertical deep threats at wide receiver.
While the Cardinals typically have two tight ends on the field between one-third and one-half of the team's total plays in a given game, Arians is a minimalist when it comes to how the tight ends are used, and how many he keeps on his active roster.
For most of his tenure, Arians has kept three tight ends on his active roster, even while calling an offense that could benefit from a more athletic, versatile pass-catcher as a fourth option. Of the three tight ends Arians does keep, he requires them to boast size and physicality, for their primary role is always as a blocker, and never as a receiver.
Many who follow the Cardinals closely including CardinalsSource thought the progress of former undrafted free agent Ifeanyi Momah might force Arians to consider adding a fourth tight end to the roster this season, but alas, Momah ended up on the practice squad and Arizona will march on with three valuable options at the position.
Jermaine Gresham: Gresham is entering his seventh NFL season this year and though he's just 28 years old, the top tight end on the Cardinals roster is probably in the latter half of his career. Tight end is the arguably the most schematically demanding position on the offensive side of the ball because of the types of blocks players are asked to make, and Gresham appears to be feeling the effects of the physicality required for players at the position.
As a younger player in Cincinnati, Gresham was a reliable fantasy option as a 50-to-60 catch per year player, but since becoming a Cardinal, the Oklahoma product has seen his impact as a receiver dwindle while watching his role as a blocker expand. Gresham is a technically sound in-line blocker who doesn't possess the same freakish frame of Darren Fells, but makes up for it in his fundamental technique. While Gresham has been surpassed by Fells as the No. 1 tight end at different points over the last year, his consistency heading into this season leads us to believe the Cardinals will still use him in an extensive capacity, and likely keep him as the opening week starter.
Darren Fells: One of the many college basketball players who ultimately became an NFL tight end, Fells took up the sport later than nearly every professional player. That's why at the age of 30, Fells still has fresh legs and looks like he has more bounce in his step than Gresham (He's also played just two NFL seasons.)
At 6-foot-7 and 281 pounds, Fells is a mauler who has the physical tools coaches dream of, but a technique that may never become as advanced as it needs to be to help Fells become one of the league's elite blockers. When you flip on the All-22 film, there are certain instances where Fells' athleticism jumps out right away, but on subsequent plays, there's also instances where he allows defenders to eat him up and drive him backward, because he just hasn't mastered the intricacies of the position. While Fells has the potential to become a No. 1 tight end, even at the age of 30, his skills are still raw and he could find himself as low as third on the depth chart if he's too inconsistent.
Troy Niklas: A former second round draft choice out of Notre Dame, Niklas probably has a higher ceiling than Fells because he possesses the prototypical frame of a tight end and still has youth on his side. Despite the fact he's entering his third NFL season, Niklas is still just 23 years old and coming off the best camp of his career.
While Niklas has been limited in the past due to injury, the 6-foot-6, 270-pounder stayed healthy throughout training camp this year and emerged as a possible No. 1 option at tight end. Yes, that's right, all three of the Cardinals tight ends have the potential to become the team's top option at the position, but all three players still have their drawbacks. While Niklas likely won't merit more consideration as a full-time starter until he demonstrates more consistency against top-flight defensive players, he proved during the preseason he at least belongs in 12-personnel sets because his mobility helps him get to the second level on blocks, which is critical in the Cardinals' rushing schemes.