Since his arrival in Arizona, Cardinals' head coach Bruce Arians has been reluctant to feature tight ends in the passing game as frequently as most other NFL coaches.
Even though the Cardinals often use five-man protections, when the team uses a sixth player in protection, it's quite often the team's tight end, not the running back, who stays in and blocks.
With David Johnson taking on an increasing role as a receiver throughout the 2016 season and the Cardinals' struggling through a myriad of offensive line injuries, Arians was probably even less inclined to send his tight ends into downfield patterns.
Nevertheless, when starting tight end Jermaine Gresham did have opportunities to make plays in the passing game, he made the most of them, doubling his statistical production from his 2015 campaign with Arizona.
Gresham nabbed 37 catches for 391 yards and two touchdowns, numbers that don't begin to compare with the stats he posted during the first five seasons of his career with the Cincinnati Bengals, but numbers that nonetheless clearly signaled an improved comfort level in Arizona's offense.
Though much of Arizona's offensive personnel struggled through a down year, Gresham was one of a few bright spots, consistently making plays and setting himself apart from the other tight ends on Arizona's roster as the most dependable, consistent option, which is a bonus to any offense, but especially this year's Cardinals unit.
Gresham in 2016
Arizona started eight different combinations of offensive linemen this season and five different right guards, but there was one constant for the Cardinals up front. On a week-by-week basis, Arians and the rest of the offense could count on Gresham as the end man on the line of scrimmage, sealing off the edge on run plays, serving as an additional blitz protector on pass plays, and sneaking out into routes on various occasions.
When the Cardinals' offensive line depth became critically thin, Arizona began to work Gresham into the passing game in more creative ways, using him as a quick target for quarterback Carson Palmer to find on hot routes which would help counteract opponents' ability to pressure. Between weeks 12 and 14, Gresham caught 15 passes for over 125 yards, but never hauled in a reception of more than 15 yards. This was almost by design, as Arizona wanted Gresham flying under the radar and creating mismatches against linebackers that allowed for Palmer to get the ball out of his hands quickly.
Aside from improving his presence as a pass-catcher, Gresham was one of the Cardinals' most important blockers up front. His 6-foot-5, 260-pound frame was an added advantage for Arizona in the perimeter run game, as Gresham demonstrated the size and strength to contend with edge rushers for most of the season. While he sometimes demonstrated a tendency to stand up too high at the point of attack, when Gresham did fit up against defenders properly, he was almost always able to handle one-on-one blocks with ease.
In a season in which backup Darren Fells failed to provide enough consistency as a blocker and third-team tight end Troy Niklas suffered a season-ending injury, the Cardinals needed Gresham to be solid, and he certainly proved his value.
Gresham in 2017
Gresham isn't under contract for 2017 and after returning to the Cardinals on a one-year deal following the 2015 season, he should be able to make a strong case to command a higher salary next season.
Last offseason, reports surfaced that Gresham took less money from the Cardinals to return to the team because he believed Arizona had a legitimate chance of winning the Super Bowl, and in the end, his gamble didn't pay dividends. Gresham earned $3.5 million for spending an additional season in Arizona, but now, the 28-year-old Oklahoma product may be able to command a multi-year deal on the free agent market.
With Fells and Niklas both uncertainties, the Cardinals would be wise to bring Gresham back on a two-year contract, even if they need to give him a slight bump in salary. Though his recent statistics don't back this assertion up because of the Cardinals' offensive scheme, CardinalsSource believes that Gresham can still be one of the more effective pass-catching tight ends in the league if he played in a different offense.
Whether Gresham believes theres' greener pastures elsewhere remains to be seen, but if he ultimately elects to leave the franchise during free agency, the Cardinals are going to need to develop a contingency plan because relying on Fells and Niklas probably isn't enough for the team to match the type of productivity --both in the run and pass games-- that Gresham has given the Cardinals at the tight end position over the last two seasons.