As you flip your calendar over to the month of July today, take a highlighter and draw a big circle around the 25th. That will be the first official day of training camp and the first practice that is open to the public. Players will report on the 23rd (yes that means you, Boldin and Dockett) and they'll undergo a conditioning test on the 24th. With roughly three and a half weeks to go before camp though, I figured we could look at depth and potential battles at each position. We'll get the ball rolling with the tight ends.
The Cardinals have made a conscious effort to upgrade themselves at the tight end position in the past couple of drafts. After a couple of seasons trying to get by with undrafted free agents (Adam Bergen & Eric Edwards), the Cardinals finally decided to build the position through the draft. The 2006 draft would bring third rounder, Leonard Pope and the following draft they would use a seventh round pick on Ben Patrick. It was the first time that they had drafted two tight ends that close together since 1996, when they selected two in the same draft class (also a 3rd & 7th rounds). They also have an undrafted tight end in the mix, Troy Bienemann and an accomplished veteran force in Jerame Tuman. Looking towards 2008, the Cardinals seem to have the best group of tight ends to inhabit the desert in quite some time, but with four possible choices the biggest question could be: Who plays when and where?
Leonard Pope: Pope is the incumbent starter and should be first in line when the season starts. He hasn't quite lived up to the Cards' expectations yet, but he did show signs of becoming a legitimate receiving threat late in 2007 before going down with an injury in week 14. He has yet to catch 25 passes or top 250 yards but in his final 5 games last year, he started to develop into a reliable threat (14 receptions for 143 yards and 3 TDs). Those numbers aren't great but projected over a full season they be more than respectful at 45 receptions for over 450 yards and nearly 10 touchdowns. Pope still needs to become a more consistent blocker at the point of attack but with his height (6'8), he'll always be a red zone threat. He'll never be mentioned in the same breath with Gates, Gonzalez or Witten, but the Cardinals aren't asking him to be their #1 receiving threat. They just need him to work the middle of the field to keep the linebackers and safeties from concentrating solely on Fitz and Q.
Ben Patrick: Most fans said "who?" when they heard Patrick's name called late in the 2007 draft, but Patrick didn't disappoint in his rookie season. He stepped in and started 3 games (played in 8 total) when Pope went down and his play wasn't terrible for a 7th rounder trying to transition from D-II to the NFL level. His 7 receptions for 73 yards and two TDs didn't set the desert on fire but he did show some promise as both a receiver and a capable blocker. Patrick could eventually become a better blocker than Pope considering he's nearly 15 pounds heavier despite being four inches shorter. Patrick will have to fight for playing time though since Tuman was brought in to be the 'blocking tight end.'
Jerame Tuman: Tuman is another former Steeler to move to Arizona and most
Cardinals' fans probably won't even notice his contribution to the team. Tuman isn't much of a receiving threat with just 43 receptions in nine NFL seasons, but he makes his living as a great blocker. Don't be surprised to see Tuman come in and serve as an extra lineman in short yardage and goal line situations. His greatest contribution to the Cardinals though could end up being his contributions to the development of Pope and Patrick. Tuman is a veteran who's been around a winning franchise his entire career and his experiences should help the younger guys develop the finer points of the game.
Troy Bienemann: Bienemann was undrafted after his final season at Washington State and an injury led to New Orleans cutting him prior to the 2006 season. He would sign with the Cardinals in April of 2007 and he would appear in all 16 games (including 4 starts). He had some decent moments but didn't do much to stand out. He'll likely have to have a great camp and preseason to make the opening day roster. He's a decent player but teams rarely carry four tight ends on the 53 man roster.
Alex Shor: The guy most of us have never heard of is a tight end who spent the summer of 2007 playing for the now defunct NFL Europe. He isn't much of a receiving threat but he's a capable blocker. His best case scenario for 2008 would be the practice squad but with three players who are the same age or younger than him at tight end, the deck is stacked against him.
Overall: The good news is that the Cardinals have very good depth at tight end with four players who have starting experience. The only thing that they lack is a dynamic, down the field threat. I'd expect Pope to have a breakout year, posting career highs in every category (as long as he stays healthy). With a new #3 receiver, look for Pope to come out of the gates strong until Leinart develops a repertoire with either Breaston or Doucet. I wouldn't be terribly surprised if he's close to a double digit touchdown season. Patrick will get his share of playing time as well but will likely need an injury to Pope to get significant snaps. He'll still likely end up with double digit receptions and a couple of touchdowns, but not much more. Tuman will likely get most of his snaps on goal-line and short yardage plays and will probably end the season with just a handful of receptions. Bienemann, if he makes the roster, probably won't be active on game days unless one of the trio ahead of him is injured.
So what do you think about tight ends on the roster? Is this the best group in quite some time or just a group of four guys who'd have a hard time making any impact on another team?