Training Camp Battle Preview: Tight End

With the lucrative position of red zone target up for grabs, expect both Leonard Pope and Ben Patrick to lay it all on the line. Pope is recovering from injury, but is expected to be a go at camp. He has the size, but is a suspect blocker. Patrick is a versatile threat, yet lacks experience. If Pope is going to reign supreme, he's going to need to bring more than his A-game.

Leonard Pope (6'8, 238) is an enormous individual. Drafted out of Georgia, Pope enters his third season with high hopes. After progressing nicely in 2007, it is imperative that he builds on that momentum. Pope's substantial height advantage on Ben Patrick will undeniably improve his chances of landing the starting gig. If nothing else his presence will be felt in the red zone offense.

If Pope can use his size effectively in the red zone, he will easily improve upon his five touchdown catches from last year.

Last season Pope sustained a gruesome injury. In week 14 he dislocated his ankle and fractured a leg bone. Fortunately, the healing process has come along nicely and he is expected to be ready for training camp. Currently Pope is in possession of the starting role. If the injury digresses, there is serious potential for Patrick to take his place. However, Pope graduated from a military high school and it would be unwise to underestimate his determination.

Leonard Pope

For Pope to solidify his role, he has no choice but to improve his blocking ability. With Edgerrin James averaging a meager 3.8 yards per carry last season, a well-trained blocking tight end is imperative.

The Cardinals did make an off-season acquisition by signing Jerame Tuhman as a blocking specialist. If the defense thinks run every time Tuhman subs in, obviously the effectiveness will be limited. Blocking has to become Pope's number one concern in training camp if he his going to succeed.

While it may be premature to call Patrick the next Antonio Gates, they are not as far apart as one might expect. Gates was an undrafted free agent and Patrick was not selected until the final round of the NFL draft. Patrick is extremely athletic for his size and can get downfield quickly for a tight end. Like Gates his athleticism allows him to be a multitalented player on the field.

Tight ends have a history of becoming stars after being drafted in later rounds (see Shannon Sharpe, also a seventh-round pick). Patrick will certainly provide difficult competition for Pope throughout the season.

In college Patrick played a variety of positions. As a member of the Duke football team he went through stints as the FB, TE, and the H-back. He did not graduate from Duke and instead was drafted out of Delaware in 2007. At 6'4, 270, what he lacks in height against Pope, he makes up in girth. Having a lower center of gravity allows him block with a higher efficiency than Pope.

Patrick has potential to be a productive tight end in the NFL. It just may take a few seasons before he grows into the role. As a raw talent he needs to improve his knowledge of the offense and become more adept at finding the soft spots in zone defenses. Absorbing information from surrounding teammates is his best shot at improvement. If he can learn to block like Tuhman and catch like Pope, he will be a useful threat and a valuable team member.

With Pope expected to return healthy for training camp, Patrick will have to wait for his shot at the starting role. However, don't always believe the depth chart. Patrick will get plenty of opportunities to play throughout the season. Coach Ken Whisenhunt has even mentioned using two tight end sets more frequently this season because of the abundance of skilled tight ends on the team. A position that was once a blemish on the soaring Cardinals' offense is now a strength.

Thanks to intelligent drafting and free agent signings, the Cardinals are in position to add quality tight end play to their potent offensive repertoire. Although Patrick is a quality player with infinite upside, don't jump on the bandwagon just yet.

Pope is the clear-cut starter unless he shows a serious lack of effort in training camp. Expect Pope to start this season while Patrick continues his development and looks to make an immediate impact in 2009.

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