The Missing Piece?

With 97 days left until the regular season begins, football fans are busy combing the transaction wire looking for players either cut or signed by the respective teams around the league. Think about it, other than mini-camps is there really anything to look at right now?

There have been a few significant free agent signings so far, but other than the expansion draft and subsequent cuts that had to be made by the other 31 teams around the league, this has been a quiet free agency year to date. So when I was looking around at the free agent moves made thus far, a signing by the Arizona Cardinals seemed to strike a chord with me. The more I looked at the signing the more I felt that the Cardinals may have made the best signing to date when they lured tight end Freddie Jones away from the San Diego Chargers.

Freddie Jones has been in the league for 5 seasons and was in San Diego for each one. Even though Jones is coming off of a disappointing season where he was hampered by a nagging ankle injury, his credentials speak volumes. During his tenure with the Chargers, Jones averaged exactly 52 catches a season, only Shannon Sharpe (59.8) and Tony Gonzalez (66.8) averaged more catches over that period. Now 52 catches can be huge for an offense so I decided to look through the Cardinal history book and find how many 50 catch seasons they had from a tight end. In 1967, Hall of Fame tight end Jackie Smith had his finest season with the Cardinals. Smith had 56 catches for 1,205 yards and this was the only time in Cardinal history a tight end topped the 50 catch mark in a season. When Smith retired with 480 receptions in 1978 he led all tight ends and had a total of seven 40-catch seasons with the then St. Louis Cardinals. Those 40 catch seasons are the only ones in Cardinals history with Rob Awalt's total of 39 in 1988 being the closest.

By looking at the anemic receiving numbers the Cardinal tight ends have put up over the years it is easy to understand why the organization and fans are so excited about the arrival of Freddie Jones. Jones has averaged nearly 600 yards receiving a season, a number that again nobody but Jackie Smith has reached in a Cardinal uniform.

So what does the arrival of Jones mean for the offense? First it gives the Cardinals a receiving threat in the middle of the field and a safety valve for quarterback Jake Plummer. The threat of a receiving tight end will also keep some of the linebackers away from the line of scrimmage as they drop into coverage, helping an improving offensive line in Arizona. Less defenders at the line of scrimmage should also have a positive effect on the running game as Thomas Jones get the reigns this year.

The Cardinals have an obvious talent in wide receiver David Boston but finding him a receiver to compliment his skills has not been easy. Frank Sanders has lacked consistency and MarTay Jenkins is still learning the position. So if the Cardinals have struggled with a #2 receiver why not throw to a different position. But the person who has to be grinning from ear-to-ear is Jake Plummer. The addition of Jones will make a quarterback like Plummer even more dangerous. Also a tip for you fantasy football players out there, the addition of Jones could catapult Plummer into a top 10 fantasy quarterback when the preseason rankings are released so remember that when your draft rolls around.

The questions that remain focus on the health of Jones (which looks like it will not be a problem) and whether or not the Cardinals will know how to use a tight end. We are talking about a team that since 1990 has only averaged 21 catches a year from all of their tight ends combined! Either the Cardinals don't have many plays for a tight end or Jones will just be busy getting the dust off those pages in the playbook. Another important fact that many may overlook is the climate. Arizona is one of the toughest places to play football, especially with the blazing heat near the start of the football season. Jones has played all five seasons in San Diego so adjusting to the elements should not be an issue for Freddie Jones.

So rejoice Cardinal fans, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic now that Freddie Jones is on the roster. Freddie Jones is no Jackie Smith but he is a vast improvement for the offense at a position that has been overdue for an overhaul.

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