Tight end room much improved for Arizona Cardinals, but not everyone is where they should be

Jess Root

John Carlson is elevating the level of the group, but athletic Fells and Hardy still lagging.

It seems every other day there is something about how the tight end room for the Arizona Cardinals is so much more improved. Head coach Bruce Arians talks up how "NFL" it looks. John Carlson, signed as a free agent in the offseason is getting praise nearly every media session.

Quarterback Carson Palmer continues with the praise and optimism.

"That group has really come along," Palmer said about the tight ends. "We had issues last year with injuries and Robby (Housler) was up and down."

He also reiterated how "phenomenal" Carlson has been.

"It's been phenomenal to have John for a number of reasons, but mainly he's really pushed that tight end group," Palmer continued. "He's really brought the best out of Robby. Bringing competition to that spot has really helped Robby improve and made Robby improve. It helped make Jake Ballard improve."

If this improvement continues with pads on in training camp, it will be very important to the offense, because Bruce Arians uses the position as a key part of the offense. Carlson said that when you have a versatile group of players at the position, "(it) allows us to do different thing and give looks and do run/pass checks and just be more versatile."

Carlson, who has been in West Coast systems before, explained that the Arizona offense is "quite different," saying that "we do a lot of different things in this offense to give tight ends opportunities to make plays."

He goes on.

"We're legitimate options on the routes," he said. "It's fun. We know that if we work to get open, even if it might be an outside route that is typically run by a receiver, if we work to get open and get open, we can get the ball. They aren't just going to not throw it because it's a tight end out there, so it's exciting."

But the overall improvement doesn't apply equally to all the players in the room.

Troy Niklas is out again with injury. First he was recovering from offseason hernia surgery and he recently broke his hand. Palmer says that "it's obviously not ideal" for a young player to miss out on important reps because of injury. "Being a young guy, you need the reps and you've got to kind of put it in overdrive once training camp is here to catch up."

A pair of projects -- Andre Hardy and Darren Fells -- who are not experienced football players, but have a basketball background, are not as far along as they ideally would be.

"Darren's a little further behind than I thought he would be, having been here for a year," Arians explained about Fells, who was on the team's practice squad last season. "Hardy is an outstanding athlete. He's just got to learn how to play football.

"It's learning assignments and still playing fast and not thinking about your assignment the whole time. He still struggles with that.

"Darren should be past that right now,  but he's still struggling a little bit."

But Arians was clear that these two players will not get any extra benefit of the doubt because of the success other tight ends with a basketball background have fared.

"I don't give a damn about other basketball players," he quipped. "I like football players."

What will the room look like in the regular season? Will Housler, Carlson, Ballard and now Niklas, all of whom have some injury history, be able to stay healthy and produce?

The potential is certainly there. Will that potential turn into something more?

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