So that we can accurately judge the team's needs heading into the draft, let's take a look at what the roster looks like today. Talent, age, and contract are all factors.
Years Remaining: 2 (RFA)
Primary receiving TE and one player that Bruce Arians is specifically excited to work with. Blocking is better than advertised, in my opinion. I think his reputation in this area is based entirely on draft reports from when he entered the league, not on how he actually performs in the NFL. Used frequently as a traditional, in-line tight end by the previous regime, Housler was still the recipient of the fourth-most catches (45) and targets (68) on the team last year.
Between Carson Palmer, who's arm guided Oakland's Brandon Myers to a career year in 2012 (79 catches; 32 combined 3 seasons), and Arians' interest in utilizing Housler more as a "big receiver," it's probably safe to predict that Housler will exceed those numbers this season. The body of a traditional tight end and more athletic ability than most wide receivers, Housler is, or can be, a true difference-maker at the position. Few players in the NFL represent such a drastic mismatch to defenses. In fact, since 2005, only two tight ends have recorded faster 40 times at the Combine: Vernon Davis, and Dorin Dickerson. We all know about Davis, but it's worth noting that Dickerson ran at only 226 lbs. -- 20 lighter than Housler or Davis.
Verdict: Future Star/2013 Breakout Candidate
Years Remaining: 1 (UFA)
King is a decent TE2. He contributes a lot as a blocker and does enough in the receiving game that defenses can't afford to lose him. In the last year of a reasonable contract that will leave him an unrestricted free agent after the season, re-signing him is no sure thing but he's not a player I would expect to see a large demand for in free agency.
Verdict: Depth/long-term concerns
Years Remaining: 1 (RFA)
The forgotten man in 2013, Dray doesn't offer much in the passing game. He doesn't have the worst hands but he doesn't separate from defenders and isn't able to be relied upon as much more than a blocker. He does have a lot of experience in that role, however, and plays an important role on special teams. Dray is a good fit as a third tight end, but probably won't ever advance beyond that role.
Verdict: Depth/limited upside
Years Remaining: 1
The fourth tight end (also known as a "camp body"), Sperry isn't known for his blocking and has only eight receptions since entering the league in 2009.
Verdict: Bubble player
Arians and the Tight End
Heath Miller, one of the best all-around tight ends in the game, averaged about 53 receptions with Arians as the Steelers offensive coordinator. This may surprise some, but Arians never used his second tight end much in Pittsburgh -- at least not as a receiving threat. During that span, he used the 6'7 Matt Spaeth as an extra blocker until, in 2011, David Johnson stepped in as an H-back. Those two players averaged just under 10 receptions per season.
Arians was at the vanguard of an Indianapolis staff that drafted tight ends back to back in the second and third rounds. Coby Fleener went on to record 26 receptions as a TE1 and Dwayne Allen, playing an H-back role, recorded 45. They were the fourth- and fifth-leading receivers for the team.
His offense with the Colts was actually a simplified version of what he ran in Pittsburgh, despite having better personnel for it. I recommend that link as a nice refresher about Arians' scheme and how he likes to move his personnel around.
Arians and the Cardinals
We know from Arians' history and press appearances that his base offense is a two tight end set with no fullback. He has approached the position from both old school and new rules perspectives. In Pittsburgh, he used his extra personnel as blockers almost exclusively. Dropping Matt Spaeth and adding David Johnson to play H-back was a natural move for his evolving, pre-snap-motion-based scheme. Check out this fantastic article for more information about exactly what an H-back brings to an offense.
Do I think the Cardinals are going to adopt a similar look in 2013? Absolutely. Do I think the new coaching staff is drooling through their teeth to draft a tight end? Absolutely... but I want to pump the brakes a little bit.
The Cardinals roster looks a lot different than the Colts did at this time last year. That team literally only had one receiving option, Reggie Wayne. Their second and third leading receivers were added in that off-season through the draft and free agency, respectively. I don't even think they had a tight end on the roster going into the draft (their third, Weslye Saunders, was claimed off of waivers from Pittsburgh in October).
Our team sits on the exact opposite end of the spectrum. The Cardinals have a lot invested in their receivers. Their top four receiving options are already well established, and one of them happens to play tight end. Housler's presence alone is enough to dissuade the team from looking for a tight end too early. They could stand to add some upside, but an immediate contributor probably isn't necessary. Anyone they add will need to fit on special teams and as a blocker.
Draft - Suggested Targets
Dion Sims, Michigan State
Projected Round: 3-4
The best blocker in the draft also brings hands, some route running savvy, and a little vertical speed to the table.
Nick Kasa, Colorado
Projected Round: 4-5
A converted defensive lineman, Kasa is a terror on the line of scrimmage who will need time to develop into a well-rounded tight end.
Luke Willson, Rice
Projected Round: 6-Und
The "other" Rice tight end, Willson is an intriguing height/weight/speed prospect who was utilized mainly as a blocker in college but flashed natural hands and separation ability at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.
Ryan Griffin, Connecticut
Projected Round: 7-Und
Stood out at the Raycom All-Star Classic for his blocking ability and brings more to the receiving game than similar prospects in this range.
I have little to add here that you can't find out in much better detail through this link but I do want to bring up the possibility of using Anthony Sherman in an H-back role. He's been reliable as a receiver in what few opportunities he's gotten and he flashes adequate movement skills when he gets out in space. His height limits him from being an in-line blocker full-time, but that's a general knock that applies to most H-backs. Given his high effort approach to the game, he's not a player I would bet against, and let's be honest here -- the "conversion" from fullback to H-back is practically non-existent for players with some receiving ability. It's all about lining a player up to exploit match-ups and disguise your offensive scheme. Is it possible our future H-back is already on the team?