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Emerging From Depth Chart, Elijah Higgins Learns Tight End

Rookie seeing more playing time as room has changed much since September

At some point in his career, Elijah Higgins will likely have a better stat line than four catches for 44 yards and a touchdown. The rookie tight end will score in a more meaningful time than when a game is all but decided.

But the end of the 49ers game last week was still meaningful for a guy who started fourth on the depth chart and now finds himself No. 2 after the release of Zach Ertz and now the season-ending calf injury for Geoff Swaim.

"Honestly it felt like it was the first time for me being in the zone and being in the flow of the game," Higgins said of his touchdown. "It wasn't the best situation given the time in the game and the score, but I felt like I was playing ball again. When I made the catch, it felt, for the lack of a better word, regular. It felt like I belonged."

Higgins was a 6-foot-3, 234-pound wide receiver in college at Stanford, playing beside former and current teammate Michael Wilson. But as he went through the draft process, it was clear NFL teams saw him as a tight end and "I don't have an issue with that at all. I think it fits what I do best." He was drafted in the sixth round by the Dolphins, and when he was released at the end of the preseason, the Cardinals grabbed him up on waivers.

He's been helped, he said, because the Cardinals have put him in positions for which he is prepared -- and have mostly avoided what Higgins might not quite be ready for at tight end. 

"He's different than Trey, different than Geoff," coach Jonathan Gannon said. "Yes, there are times when you're gonna say, you're going to have a hard down here. As many times as we can keep those guys doing something they are really comfortable and fits their skillset, that's good coaching to me."

(Gannon said "Higgy-bear, that's what I call him, I don't know why. He's probably mad at me." Indeed, about 90 minutes later, Gannon was bellowing "C'mon, Higgy-bear" at practice as Higgins caught a pass.)

Higgins knows that with Swaim now out, his role will only increase. Trey McBride is becoming the star at the position, but the Cardinals think they have found another quality piece at the position in Higgins -- not that he has completely learned his new spot.

"They aren't just throwing me in, which I am thankful for," Higgins said. "I am preparing for things to come but it's definitely been a little bit of a roller coaster in terms of learning. You get to the top and think you've made it and then you are falling down again."

Arizona Cardinals tight end Elijah Higgins (84) during the Week 15 regular season game between the Arizona Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, Dec 17, 2023 in Glendale, AZ.