TEMPE, Ariz. -- The tight end who will fill Rob Housler's spot on the depth chart will be almost a total opposite of Housler.
Though his athleticism was a bonus, Housler wasn’t the quintessential fit for Bruce Arians' scheme, mainly because he’d rather run routes than block. And in Arians' offense, blocking comes before receiving for his tight ends.
The Arizona Cardinals' three top tight ends -- John Carlson, Troy Niklas and Darren Fells -- all fit the mold of the Arians-style of tight end. They’re all at least 6-foot-5 and 248 pounds (that baseline belongs to Carlson, the smallest of the tight ends on Arizona’s roster). Though they can all block, they can all get off the line of scrimmage well enough to be a receiving threat when their number is called -- which isn’t often. Last season, Arizona’s quartet of tight ends caught 50 passes, led by Carlson’s 33 for 350 yards and a touchdown. Fells caught his first career touchdown in the Cardinals’ wild-card loss against Carolina.
During the NFL owner meetings, Arians said the Cardinals would "like to find" another tight end through the draft and then foreshadowed the kind of tight end they’ll be targeting: "A fullback/H-back type of guy."
"We will fill out the roster," Arians said. "We have a couple guys now I haven’t seen, so I can’t really talk about them."
Arizona signed free agent Ted Bolser on Dec. 30 and then re-signed him to a futures contract in early January. On March 25, the Cardinals signed free agent Ifeanyi Momah, giving them five tight ends heading into offseason practices.
But the focus will be on Carlson, Niklas and Fells, and all three had room for progress after last season.
Carlson suffered from a case of the drops in 2014, dropping six passes including three at Dallas in Week 9, according to Pro Football Focus. It eventually impacted his playing time. He went from playing at least 75 percent of Arizona’s snaps per game the first 11 games of the season to 46.4 percent or less the final five.
"I think John lost his swagger a little bit after a couple dropped passes," Arians said. "He never drops passes, but it gets in your head. We talked about it in his exit interview. I think he comes back better than ever."
As Carlson’s playing time decreased, Fells’ increased.
He played in at least 62 percent of Arizona’s snaps in three of its final four regular-season games after proving to coaches he can block at an NFL level. During those last four games, Arizona backs averaged 3.81 yards per carry on 97 carries -- a number that was skewed by the 1.69 yards-per-carry average against Seattle in Week 16.
"I think he made the step to the NFL," Arians said. "Now can he make the step to a consistent everyday player? His play in December and January was really good."
The most athletic of the unit is Niklas, the second-year tight end out of Notre Dame who played through an injury-plagued rookie season. He dealt with a hernia and broken thumb before his first training camp, and then sprained ankles hampered him throughout the regular season and eventually ended his year in mid-November.
In seven games, he only had three catches for 38 yards and didn’t play more than 28 snaps. His ability isn’t a question heading into this season, it’s whether or not he can stay on the field.
"Troy is going to be a good player," Arians said, "if we can keep him on the field."