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A Tight End Room To Count On

Fells' big game underscores Arians' confidence in position that had question marks


Cardinals tight end Darren Fells (85) does a body bump with right tackle Earl Watford to celebrate his touchdown against the Saints.

The lineup feels like a sports version of the underdog movie, one where the misfits come together against the odds.

It's led by the guy who hadn't played football in a decade, before giving the NFL a try. It holds the former Pro Bowler whose career was threatened by back surgery, and the former second-round pick whose injuries have kept him off the field most of the time. There was even the guy dug up at the NFL Veterans combine who played well until he had to have season-ending knee surgery, later replaced by a dancing touchdown-maker who was surprisingly released.

Tight end has long been a position at which the Cardinals have long just tried to tread water. Maybe, now, it's more than that.

"You know people worry about our tight end room," coach Bruce Arians said, "and I'm like 'You've got to be kidding me.

This is one of the best tight end rooms I've ever been a part of.' And that is 20-some years (of coaching.)"

The structure, understandably, gave pause coming in. Atop the depth chart is Darren Fells, the man who played college basketball and then pro hoops overseas before moving into the NFL in 2013. He found his way to the Cardinals' practice squad that season and then to the 53-man roster last year in part because Jake Ballard had to retire.

This summer, Fells suddenly moved to the top of the food chain when veteran John Carlson surprisingly retired. Troy Niklas, the 2014 second-round pick, was still battling injuries.

So all Fells did in the opener was make four receptions for 82 yards and a touchdown, the most receiving yards for a Cardinals tight end in a game since Rob Awalt had 105 all the way back in 1989.

"When I first heard that, that surprised me," Fells acknowledged. "I'm just trying to do my job. Whatever happens after that happens."

Part of his job, after the Carlson retirement, is as the "captain" of the tight ends room. Fells is 29 despite his football inexperience, and fellow vet Jermaine Gresham is still trying to get his body totally right after back surgery and learn the playbook after signing at the outset of camp.

"I think I've settled into being the captain because I've been in the system the longest," Fells said. "But it's sort of weird

to me."

Niklas did play a little in the opener – he was on the field for David Johnson's clinching 55-yard touchdown catch – and Gresham delivered a key block on Fells’ 48-yard play. Joseph Fauria – signed after Ifeanyi Momah was lost for the season -- was inactive, although he said he's pushing hard to get on the field. Fauria scored seven touchdowns in 2013, but injuries undercut him in 2014 and the Lions cut him just before the season.

"I've been in an organization (in Detroit) where there were high expectations for the tight ends and it didn't really pan out," Fauria said. "Being here, there might be low expectations but then you have a guy who breaks out for nearly a 100-yard game, a relative unknown.

"What I've learned in this business is the best ability is availability. That's part of the reason I'm here now."

It's why Fells has firmly established himself on the depth chart. He's done well as a blocker – that is the strength of both Gresham and Niklas too – and success in this offense shouldn't be measured against the Grahams and Gronkowskis of the world.

"It depends on the offense you are in," Gresham said "A lot of times you aren't getting 12 targets a game. You have to block and do other things. That said, sometimes people get the perception, they want the guy who goes for 100 yards a game or 15 touchdowns (in a season). But if you look at the bigger scheme of the offense, (tight ends with lesser stats) play an important role."

That's what Arians wants. The blocking first, and then search for the mismatch. The attention paid to wide receivers John Brown and Larry Fitzgerald got Fells wide open for his 48-yard catch Sunday, and the Cardinals always love a guy at least 6-foot-5 (as all the tight ends are) in the red zone.

"We all strive for those (statistical) numbers. With a coach who wants us to block first, there is a ceiling," Fauria acknowledged. "But I think with the guys in that room, there is the potential and capability to do things like that."

Images of Cardinals fans rooting on their team in the home opener against New Orleans

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