Even though head coach Bruce Arians enjoys using two-tight end, 12-personnel sets within his offense, the Cardinals made a sacrifice at the beginning of the season when the team carried just three tight ends on its 53-man roster.
Arizona's decision to carry three tight ends, Jermaine Gresham, Darren Fells and Troy Niklas, came as a mild surprise considering the team was thin on offensive line depth and the presumptive fourth tight end Ifeanyi Momah, is a capable special teams asset with a different skill set than the other three tight ends the Cardinals had ahead of him.
Nevertheless, Arizona moved forward out of training camp by cutting Momah, but it wouldn't be long before general manger Steve Keim was giving the former undrafted free agent a call. That's because for the second time in three seasons, Niklas landed on injured reserve as he suffered a week three hand injury that kept him out for the duration of the season.
With Niklas out for the year and Momah back in the fold, the Cardinals once again had three capable tight ends on the roster, but even that depth wouldn't hold up for long. Momah joined the roster in week four immediately following Niklas's injury, but didn't make his NFL debut until week six when the Cardinals defeated the New York Jets.
Two weeks later, though, Momah suffered a season-ending injury that forced him to join Niklas on the Cardinals' injured reserve list.
In the preseason, Arizona had more tight end depth than it could handle. By the middle of the regular season, the Cardinals were scrambling around, as Fells struggled with consistency, and Niklas and Momah suffered injuries, leaving the onus on the team's starter, Gresham, to carry the weight of the entire position group.
Fells, Niklas and Momah in 2016
The 2016 season was a challenging one for Fells, as he failed to build off of the momentum he generated with a strong 2015 campaign. At various points during 2015, Fells surged ahead of Gresham on the depth chart, as Arians loved taking advantage of Fells' massive 6-foot-7, 281-pound frame as a blocker for Arizona's perimeter run plays.
Even though Fells started seven games in 2016, the Cardinals' backup tight end didn't receive the same number of offensive repetitions as he did the year prior because he struggled with his fundamental approach to blocks. As a result, the former college basketball player at UC Irvine didn't bring the Cardinals the same type of value as he did in 2015, and his offensive production fell by the wayside.
Niklas started the 2016 preseason on a high note, and at certain points during training camp, Arians used Niklas with the first and second-team offenses as opposed to the third team unit with which he worked in 2015. Niklas made a convincing case to pass Fells on the depth chart, and may have done so if he was able to stay healthy this year, but just three weeks into the season, Niklas landed on injured reserve, halting any and all progress he made.
As for Momah, he shined during the preseason because he brought a variety of talents to the tight end position and was the best pass-catcher among the Cardinals' backup tight ends, but he didn't make the opening week roster because Arians prioritizes blockers at the position. However, when Momah did get the call to the team's roster in week four, he became a leading special teams player, as his athleticism made him a prime candidate for both coverage and return units. Still, much like Niklas, Momah's tenure on the active roster was short-lived, as he too suffered a season-ending injury that curtailed the momentum he was starting to build.
Fells, Niklas and Momah in 2017
The Cardinals now face an interesting predicament at the tight end position moving forward as Niklas is the team's only tight end under contract for the 2017 season. Gresham, Fells and Momah are all free agents, and the team knows it can't rely on Niklas in a No. 1 or perhaps even a No. 2 capacity due to his injury history.
Entering the final year of his rookie deal, Niklas could do wonders for his career by staying healthy all season and serving as a capable backup tight end. At this point, though, it's unlikely the Cardinals would be able to rely on him in a starter's capacity, which is rather unfortunate for a former second round draft pick.
It's unlikely that either Fells or Momah will command a multi-year deal on the free agent market, so the Cardinals have some flexibility with both players. Arizona will likely look to either re-sign Gresham or add a proven No. 1 tight end at the position before it looks into locking up Fells or Momah for next season.