Tight end takes another injury hit

Posted by Darren Urban on September 9, 2015 – 2:31 pm

Darren Fells chuckled. I mean, what else can you do? It’s not funny with all the injuries the team’s tight end room has absorbed — the latest being a knee problem for Ifeanyi Momah, after he got hurt in Tuesday’s practice — but it’s better than crying. Or punching a wall in frustration. Fells is the one healthy tight end, although Jermaine Gresham (hamstring) did finally practice full on Wednesday and Troy Niklas (hamstring) was able to go limited.

UPDATE: Momah will reportedly have to undergo surgery for a torn meniscus. I would guess Bruce Arians will give the official diagnosis Thursday.

“I don’t know what to say anymore,” Fells said, shaking his head.

(Wide receiver Michael Floyd also returned to practice on a limited basis, even diving to catch one pass.)

Fells laughed again when told that Bruce Arians said he wasn’t worried about his tight ends because at least “we’ve still got one.” That’s Fells, who has maintained his post atop the depth chart, the place he’s been since the summer when the tight ends began their roller coaster journey on the surprise retirement of John Carlson.

“That’s all you can do is laugh about it because … I mean, it’s a bad thing, but all you can do is, like B.A. always says, have next man up,” Fells said. Fells admitted, with all the two-tight end and three-tight end sets the Cards like to use, the lack of bodies makes things hard.

At least Fells is there, though, knocking on the wood of his locker.


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Gresham visit could change Cards’ TE situation

Posted by Darren Urban on July 19, 2015 – 8:06 am

It wouldn’t be an offseason for the Cardinals and General Manager Steve Keim without a veteran free agent signing or two by the time the team got to training camp. Given the retirement of John Carlson earlier this offseason, making a tight end one of those signings wouldn’t be a surprise. So it’s also not a surprise when Adam Schefter reported Sunday morning former Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham would be visiting the Cardinals this week.

Gresham, a former first-round pick who spent his first five seasons with the Bengals (and once a teammate of Carson Palmer), has started 67 NFL games (of 73 total) and has 280 receptions. He’s a pass catcher on a team that could use a proven one at tight end now that Carlson is gone. He had to have back surgery earlier in the offseason for a herniated disc, which is why he hasn’t signed anywhere yet. He also has been criticized for his inconsistency over the years in Cincinnati.

Gresham has already visited the Saints, who traded away Jimmy Graham, and there is interest there. Gresham also could visit other teams. The Cards have Darren Fells and Troy Niklas as blocker-first-types. Veteran combine signee Ifeanyi Momah — who has been working with Palmer in Palmer’s San Diego workouts — has looked good as a receiver in non-padded OTAs and minicamp. The Cards also have seventh-round pick Gerald Christian, Ted Bolser and Gannon Sinclair at tight end.

Jermaine Gresham, Mike Mitchell, Lawrence Timmons

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Carlson exit creates tight end scrutiny

Posted by Darren Urban on May 5, 2015 – 3:29 pm

The surprising decision of tight end John Carlson to retire Tuesday — after taking part in Monday’s Phase 2 on-field workout — has left the position in an interesting situation. Yes, the Cards drafted a tight end (Gerald Christian, the last pick in the draft) but you have to think the Cards might have seriously considered taking a tight end earlier had they known Carlson was about to leave the game.

(It should be noted this draft class was considered relatively weak at tight end.)

The Cardinals have high hopes for Troy Niklas, 2014’s second-round pick, and they like Darren Fells too as he makes his transition from former professional basketball player overseas. But is that enough? Is Christian enough? Can they find something they like in deep roster fodder like Ifeanyi Momah — signed after the NFL veterans combine — or Ted Bolser? You figure they’d have to consider a veteran, someone like Zach Miller or Jermaine Gresham, although the injuries for guys like that are the reason they’re still out there in the first place. Fells is a smart guy, someone I could see being a leader at some point now that Carlson is gone. But he knows where he has come from, that he had to work just to stick on the practice squad two years ago. He might not have made the roster last year if Jake Ballard hadn’t retired. Now, he’s the vet. He’s been around the longest, he’s played the most NFL games. Stunning.

Tight end has never been a crucial part of the receiving offense for the Cards, so if Niklas and Fells can provide the blocking needed, that’s what Bruce Arians seeks. Fells actually showed some hands the few times the ball was thrown his way. Still, after talking to Niklas and Fells today, it’s Carlson’s leadership that will be missed the most.


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Housler signs with Browns

Posted by Darren Urban on April 9, 2015 – 2:19 pm

Rob Housler wasn’t coming back to the Cardinals. The team had decided to move on from the tight end and 2011 third-round pick, so he was always going to have a new address in 2015. It turned out to be Cleveland, where Thursday Housler worked out a one-year contract. He joins former Cardinals teammates Karlos Dansby and Jim Dray. Once the Cardinals drafted Troy Niklas last year, Housler’s days were probably numbered, and with Darren Fells emerging as a future possibility at tight end, the Cards had — along with John Carlson — the tight ends they needed.

Coach Bruce Arians has said he is hoping to add an H-back-type tight end. Right now, the Cards have five tight ends on the roster: Niklas, Fells, Carlson, Ted Bolser and Ifeanyi Momah.


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Cards benefit from Fells’ basketball departure

Posted by Darren Urban on March 19, 2015 – 4:25 pm

The (real) opening of March Madness Thursday was a good time to break out the in-season Zoom episode of tight end Darren Fells, who spent a bunch of years away from the game of football playing first college basketball (no NCAA tournaments for him) and then pro basketball overseas. A couple of years ago he realized he would like to try his hand at football — he notes he wanted to be in a more physical game — and now he’s morphed into a feasible option for the Cardinals at tight end.

Fells actually looked pretty decent near the end of the season when he got a chance to play. The Cardinals and coach Bruce Arians really like 2014 second-round pick Troy Niklas (assuming he can stay healthy). John Carlson figures to be an option, and something could happen in the draft. The Cardinals are going to want four tight ends, given that Arians likes to use two at a time and, as the Cards proved in each of the last two seasons, injuries happen.

Fells should be in the mix. At 6-foot-7 and someone who has already admitted he likes the physical part of the game, Fells still must learn. You don’t play in college and the learning curve is a little more steep, and in football terms, Fells is still very young. He’s not going to be a Antonio Gates-type of basketball-player-turned-tight end. But if he continues to develop, he’s one of those down-the-roster finds that can really help a team become a contender.

Darren Fells, Pomare

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Palmer the best on third downs

Posted by Darren Urban on November 5, 2014 – 10:13 am

Against the Cowboys, the Cardinals shouldn’t have even been in a third down situation at one point. Quarterback Carson Palmer found Michael Floyd about eight yards downfield on a pass and it looked like Floyd just had to turn upfield and he’d get the two remaining yards needed for a first. Instead he ran back a few yards, and then he fumbled, forcing the Cards into a third down. No matter. Palmer hit Larry Fitzgerald for a 20-yard gain the next play.

The Cardinals’ offense hasn’t been as consistent as Bruce Arians would like, but one area the quarterback has excelled within is third-down passing. The Cardinals converted 9 of 15 third downs in Dallas, and Palmer’s improvement on third downs is Exhibit A why. Palmer currently is the highest rated quarterback on third downs this season, with a passer rating of 129.5, well above that of No. 2 Tony Romo at 122.5. (Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers round out the top five.)

Palmer — who has missed three of the Cards’ eight games with his shoulder problem — has completed 42-of-64 third-down passes for 609 yards, eight touchdowns and only one interception.

It’s those last two stats that capture the most attention, and underscore the improvement Palmer has made since last season. In 2013, playing every snap for the Cards, Palmer ended up only 29th in the league in third-down passing, with a passer rating of 77.1. He completed 94-of-163 passes for 1,233 yards, but the other numbers are notable. Last year, Palmer only threw nine touchdowns on third down in 16 games. He also threw nine interceptions.

Obviously, with half a season to go, Palmer can’t afford to slide backward, but he’s been excellent up until this point. The Cardinals were four-of-four in the red zone against the Cowboys, and all four touchdowns came on third down plays. Three were Palmer touchdown passes — only the second time Palmer has thrown three TD passes in a game since coming to Arizona. And his pair of second-quarter TDs showed both sides of Palmer’s abilities on third down.

On a seven-yard touchdown pass to tight end John Carlson, the Cowboys only rushed three and Palmer calmly waited in the pocket until Carlson was able to find a void in the zone coverage. On a 11-yard TD to Jaron Brown, a four-man rush pushed the pocket but Palmer rifled the ball to Brown in between three defenders on a perfectly timed throw. In was third-and-long for both (six needed on the Carlson play, 10 on the Brown play). Palmer made it happen. It’s the kind of third-down production that teams need to win.


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The tight end battle — on both sides

Posted by Darren Urban on September 4, 2014 – 3:59 pm

John Carlson looked wonderful at tight end through the offseason and training camp, but he did not make a catch during his limited preseason time (save for a touchdown called back by penalty in the opener). This was brought up to Bruce Arians Thursday.

“Tight ends catch the ball against our defense all the time,” Arians deadpanned, before pausing.

“That’s what I read, anyway.”

Ahh, the tight end. It’s a position that, on both sides of the ball, definitely made things interesting in 2013. How it plays out this season, given the efforts to fix such issues, will definitely be something to watch. On offense, Carlson’s play in practice has been a revelation, the defense notwithstanding. His ability to catch the ball should mean a lot to an offense that needs such a weapon.

Does it mean he’ll get seven targets a game, necessarily? No, for the same reason he didn’t get any preseason grabs. “You don’t force balls to people,” Arians said. “You design things and you read them out. Sometimes he’ll get balls, sometimes he won’t. We don’t say ‘We’re going to get John Carlson five balls.’ It’s just not going to happen.”

On the other hand, it’s hard to think other teams didn’t do that last year with their tight ends against the Cardinals. It was definitely an Achilles heel in 2013. Asked if the Cardinals would be better against it in 2014, Arians said “I hope so.” Rookie safety Deone Bucannon is a player who is supposed to help, although one play in the preseason finale, Bucannon lost track of the tight end he was covering because he got caught looking at the quarterback. The tight end slipped only a few yards away, but made the catch and got a big gain out of it.

The Chargers have LaDarius Green, a 6-foot-6 raw target for one tight end and the ancient but still talented Antonio Gates at the other. Gates shredded the Cardinals in their last regular-season matchup, although it was 2010 against a totally different defense. It’s safe to assume the Cardinals know they need to be better in that area.

“We didn’t show it a couple of times in the preseason in zone defense, letting guys run behind us,” Arians said. “As far as man to man, we have some length now with Deone and other guys.”


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Keim: Six receivers possible

Posted by Darren Urban on August 11, 2014 – 9:32 am

The Cardinals, not surprisingly, should keep “potentially” five of six wide receivers on the 53-man roster, GM Steve Keim said Monday during his weekly appearance on Arizona Sports 98.7. That math isn’t hard to follow. Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, Ted Ginn and rookie John Brown are the top four and the locks. Barring something changing, it seems hard to believe Jaron Brown — given his special teams ability — won’t be the fifth. Beyond that, it looks like it could come down to rookie Walt Powell and Brittan Golden — or, possibly, no one. Powell is practice-squad eligible, although you’d have to get him through waivers.

“That’s the kind of problem you want to have as a General Manager,” Keim said.

Some other Keim thoughts after the first preseason game:

— He was generally pleased with the work of the offensive linemen. Jonathan Cooper “rebounded nicely” after giving up the early sack to J.J. Watt. Keim thought Cooper looked athletic in space a couple of times, which is why the Cardinals liked Cooper so much in the first place. More importantly, Keim liked how Cooper got back in the fray after having his leg (the same one that had been broken) rolled up on early. The O-line “certainly looks like an area we have upgraded.”

— Keim liked the ability to create mismatches in the passing game. That was obvious a few times, especially with tight ends getting wide open on delayed routes. John Carlson caught a touchdown (called back), Rob Housler had a 38-yard catch-and-run, and Darren Fells dropped what should have been a TD catch or near-TD catch.

— He praised John Brown and Jaron Brown, but that’s no surprise. Nor was it a shock to hear Keim appreciated the “accuracy and poise” of QB Logan Thomas.

— Keim liked how second-year inside linebacker Kenny Demens — another guy who looks like a lock to make the 53-man roster at this point — played, especially on special teams. The GM noted guys like Demens, Jaron Brown, running back Robert Hughes, cornerback Justin Bethel and guard Paul Fanaika and how their games have changed. “It gives me great faith in our coaching staff,” Keim said. “(Those are) guys that not only have improved but improved considerably.”

— It all comes with a caveat that it is only a preseason game and the first one at that. Staying injury-free and fixing what Keim saw as multiple mental errors are still topping the to-do list.

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TE Jake Ballard retires

Posted by Darren Urban on August 6, 2014 – 12:12 pm

The Cardinals’ logjam at tight end was lessened Wednesday when veteran Jake Ballard — who had already missed a couple of days of practice with a sore knee — decided to retire with his ongoing knee issues. Ballard’s career was derailed when he blew out his knee in the Giants’ Super Bowl win over the Patriots after the 2011 season. In a statement released through, Ballard said that knee injury was too much to overcome.

“I love this game and have put my heart and soul into it for as long as I can remember,” Ballard’s statement read in part. “After sustaining a serious knee injury while playing for the New York Giants in the Super Bowl, my body never felt the same.  Having a quality of life after football is very important to me and I have witnessed it taken away from others.  I will miss the game tremendously, but I am ready for this next chapter in my life.”

It’s too bad. Ballard is a good guy who came up with a couple of big plays for the Cardinals after signing last season, including a crucial catch in the game-winning drive in Seattle (seen below).  Just a few months ago, he was saying that he already felt better on the field than he did last season. “I feel like I am almost back to my old self. And that’s a relief.” Apparently, that good feeling didn’t last.

“It was an honor and a privilege to play for the NY Giants, New England Patriots, and most recently the Arizona Cardinals,” Ballard’s statement continued. “I met amazing people from all of my teammates, to opponents, to trainers, to coaches, to owners, and everyone in between. I thank you for allowing me to be a part of your fraternity and I wish you all nothing but success.”

Big picture, it’s hard to know if there is any cause-and-effect whether Ballard’s decision — or the troubles it was giving him in camp — had anything to do with how Darren Fells has been playing or the prism within which coach Bruce Arians has seen Fells as he praised him publicly the last few days. Knowing the Cardinals will have four tight ends on the roster, it seems like a quartet of John Carlson, Rob Housler, Troy Niklas and Fells makes some sense.

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The bear in Niklas, and a closed practice

Posted by Darren Urban on August 4, 2014 – 5:38 pm

We start this post with words of wisdom from tight end John Carlson, a sage who to my cohort Kyle Odegard described rookie tight end Troy Niklas thusly: “He looks like a 12-year-old boy who swallowed a grizzly bear.”

That’s better than thinking him a outsized refugee from a boy band, but nevertheless, I don’t think it’s going to stop the spike in girls who retweet any item with a Niklas photo on it.


As for practice today, it was strange to watch a workout at University of Phoenix Stadium with it closed to the public. Usually there are cheers for every single catch, and to have a reception in a vacuum was a different feeling. Among the things I noticed:

— Ted Ginn hauled in a nice long bomb early. Taking the top off the defense just like Bruce Arians likes.

— Earl Watford continued to get some first-team reps splitting with Jonathan Cooper.

— Clearly there wasn’t supposed to be much if any hitting — defenders were pulling off completely on many plays — but in one bang-bang instance, linebacker Sam Acho leveled running back Stepfan Taylor on a swing pass only by going hard after the ball. The hit was incidental and yet Acho came out way ahead. Acho has had an impressive camp thus far.

— Quarterback Logan Thomas continues to be up and down. He’ll have a nice throw and then another than you aren’t sure what was happening. When the pocket breaks down and he tries to hold his ground, he definitely looks uncomfortable much of the time.

— Rookie safety Deone Bucannon got himself an interception and almost had another.

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