Secret Superstar: Arizona Cardinals
Our Secret Superstar series makes its return ahead of the 2015 season, beginning with an Arizona Cardinals team that ran out of gas in the playoffs. Carson Palmer’s recovery appears to be going well, and the majority of the players who were key to that postseason run have either returned or have been adequately replaced, fueling optimism that the team can repeat the feat in 2015. However, one position which appears to have been neglected in the Cardinals’ offseason recruitment is tight end. With the two leading tight ends from 2014 no longer on the roster, the team will have to look within for replacements.
Bruce Arians’ offense doesn’t feature the tight end position as a major receiving option, viewing blocking as the most important trait. That held up statistically in 2014, where recognized tight ends combined for 1401 snaps in his offense (16th-most in the league), but saw just 14.8% of the teams targeted passes, the fifth-lowest rate in the league. So an all-round skill-set is a necessity for any Cardinals tight end hoping to see significant playing time, which could suit our Secret Superstar Darren Fells.
An Unusual Path
Fells certainly took an atypical route to the NFL, signing his first contract with the Seattle Seahawks in March, 2013; he was 27 at the time and had spent the past five years traveling the globe as a professional basketball player. A standout power forward for the UC Irvine Anteaters, Fells played in Belgium, Finland, France, Mexico and Argentina, before deciding to follow in the footsteps of his brother Daniel, and make it as a football player.
Fells hadn’t played football since high school, but his size (6-foot-7, and around 280 pounds) and athleticism piqued the Seahawks’ interest, for a while at least. Fells was released by Seattle during preseason, and spent much of the 2013 season on the practice squad in Arizona. From there he worked his way onto the roster for 2014, and into the starting lineup by the end of the season.
Four recognized tight ends saw the field for the Cardinals in 2014: John Carlson, Rob Housler, Fells and Troy Niklas. Carlson has since retired, and Housler departed for Cleveland, having accounted for 77.2% of the units snaps between them. That means a significant amount of playing time is up for grabs, with Fells and Niklas primed to claim the lion’s share of it, despite boasting just nine career receptions (including playoffs) between them. That they are the only tight ends on the roster with any NFL experience certainly doesn’t hurt their chances.
Niklas, the team’s second-round selection in 2014, struggled with injuries as a rookie, but will be expected to take a significant step forward in his second season, and may be the team’s first choice as a receiving tight end. He struggled as a blocker in the run game, though, recording a –8.6 run-blocking grade on just 66 snaps, so he may not be ready to assume the starting role that Carlson held, instead the role may be shared with Fells.
Fells and Niklas will have competition for their places. At least one from Gerald Christian (the team’s seventh-round selection, and one of our value picks), Ifeanyi Momah, Ted Bolser, Gannon Sinclair or a veteran picked up between now and the start of the season, will make the roster. Whoever the third tight end is though, they have an uphill fight to overtake Fells and Niklas in the race for playing time.
Making an Impression
Fells was used sparingly early on in the season, and a bad day against Washington where he recorded a -2.3 overall grade in just seven snaps, wasn’t going to convince anyone to push him further up the depth chart. However Fells forced his way back into the reckoning late in the year, playing 195 snaps in the last five weeks of the regular season, not far short of the snaps posted by Carlson and Housler combined (217). In that five-week span, Fells posted a +6.2 overall grade, and a +4.5 run-blocking grade, both marks ranked second among tight ends.
Somewhat unusually for a basketball convert, Fells best work has come as a run blocker, where he shown an aptitude for sealing a gap, acting as a lead blocker, and blocking in space downfield. One good example of what he can do came with 4:45 left in the second quarter in the Week 17 game against San Francisco — 49ers defensive end Tony Jerod-Eddie moves to get to outside and Fells makes full use of that, getting to the inside swiftly, and using Jerod-Eddie’s own momentum to turn him away from the play, then moving him laterally to widen the gap for the back. Fells has also shown as willingness to finish his blocks, as he did in Week 15, at 12:45 in the second against the St. Louis Rams, when he met Robert Quinn and drove him back 5 yards.
Fells isn’t the finished product just yet, and he can be beaten at the snap; William Hayes in Week 15, and Cliff Avril in Week 16 were both able to disrupt plays because they got the jump on him. However Fells has the length and physicality to continue to impress with a larger role.
Even less proven as a receiver, Fells carries a career tally of just six receptions for 72 yards, one touchdown (against Carolina in the playoffs) and zero drops. His second career catch came against the Seahawks in Week 16 (2Q 3:41) — the catch itself was simple enough, but he showed impressive strength to stay on his feet with Earl Thomas on his back, then gain a couple of extra yards with five defenders trying to drag him to the ground. His fourth career catch (1Q 14:01, Week 17 vs. SF) came as Fells caught the ball 14 yards downfield, reaching up in the air to snag the ball cleanly in stride for a 24-yard gain, the longest of his brief career. Neither play is special, but they show a level of competence that suggests he has potential as a short to intermediate receiver.
As a body of work it’s too little to read much into, but Fells’ aptitude as a blocker fits Arians’ blueprint for a tight end, and should ensure he has a larger role in 2015.