FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Sometimes when the New England Patriots sign an under-the-radar player, like they did Wednesday with tight end Troy Niklas, it produces unexpected results. Malcolm Butler (2014) and Dion Lewis (2015) are two examples that fall into that category.
Other times, the results aren’t as notable, and players brought in for depth purposes at a time when the roster is at 90 players don’t even make the cut.
Time will tell where the 6-foot-6, 270-pound Niklas falls, but as a player who was noted as a possible Patriots target before the 2014 draft, the idea was to take a closer look at what he might bring to the club. Here are some notes from abbreviated film study and research:
Injury history. After leaving Notre Dame following his junior season, Niklas has undergone four surgical procedures: sports hernia, fractured finger, ankle and wrist. If including removal of hardware from the ankle and wrist procedures, it would be six surgeries. In 2017, his final season with the Arizona Cardinals, he played in 15 regular-season games. After playing a season-high 76 snaps against the Washington Redskins in Week 15, he missed the next game because of an ankle ailment.
Closer look at the numbers. Niklas played 414 offensive snaps last season and was mostly the second tight end behind or alongside Jermaine Gresham. For context, No. 2 tight end Dwayne Allen played 477 offensive snaps in New England last season. Niklas finished with 11 catches for 132 yards and one touchdown. He wore No. 87 in Arizona, but that number is taken in New England.
Three games of tape. I watched parts of three games to get a feel for Niklas, and they were the games he played his highest total of snaps: 35 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 6, 44 against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 9 and 76 against Washington in Week 15. One thing that stood out to me was that Arizona doesn’t do as much as New England with tight ends. Niklas was mostly aligned next to the offensive tackle and wasn’t used much as a pass-catcher close to the goal line. It will be interesting to see if the Patriots bring out more from him with the way they sometimes feature tight ends by detaching them from the formation and using motion. Based on his size and lack of pass-catching stats, I expected to see more of a sixth offensive lineman on tape, but Niklas isn’t plodding when he releases into pass routes. He showed the ability to catch the ball in the short and intermediate areas and to gain yards after the catch. In the Washington game, he had a chance for a potential game-winning catch on a contested play down the seam, but he couldn't come up with it. Although he showed effort as a blocker against defensive ends and linebackers, he wasn’t overpowering in that area and is clearly a cut below Dwayne Allen as a pure blocker.
Summary. Niklas was drafted in the second round because he has some unique physical traits -- good size, runs well and teams knew he was raw as a prospect because he had been relatively new to the position. Injuries have stunted his growth as an NFL player, but perhaps a change of scenery will bring out the best in him. In a sense, he’s similar to former Cardinals guard Jonathan Cooper, whom the Patriots acquired in the Chandler Jones trade and who never emerged in New England, in part because of injuries. At a projected limited cost, Niklas is worth a look for the Patriots.