GLENDALE, Ariz. — Bruce Arians shakes his head when he reads or hears how limited the Cardinals are at the tight end position.
“People worry about our tight end room and I’m like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,'” Arians said. “This is one of the best tight end rooms I’ve ever been a part of in my 20-some years.”
Arians is prone to hyperbole when it comes to his players so it’s prudent to take that statement with a grain of salt. The Cardinals tight end position wasn’t productive in his two previous seasons as coach, with Jake Ballard, Rob Housler and John Carlson all turning in disappointing seasons.
A big project named Darren Fells could change all that.
In his first real game in the limelight Sunday, a 31-19 win against New Orleans, Fells caught four passes for 82 yards and a touchdown.
The last Arizona tight end to amass more yards in a game was Rob Awalt (105) against the Cowboys on Nov. 12, 1989.
“Darren has come along like gangbusters,” Arians said. “Once he adopted the idea that ‘I’m a blocker’ he became a really good football player because you know he can catch. He could always catch. He’s so big he can just box out the defender.”
Fells’ backstory is well known. He played college basketball instead of football at Cal Irvine, and then played basketball professionally in Argentina, Mexico, Belgium, Finland and France between 2008 and 2012.
He was with the Seahawks for a year before the Cardinals signed him to their practice squad in 2013. Fells, 29, played sparingly last season and finished the year with five receptions and 71 yards.
“It’s extremely difficult making the transition from basketball to football,” Fells said. “Most people think because of the Jimmy Grahams of the world that if one or two guys can do it so anybody can do it, but it’s not easy, especially when you have zero football background.”
Fells always knew he could catch the ball.
“Sixty percent of what you do in basketball is catch the ball,” he said.
It was the post-practice sessions he spent with assistant tight ends coach Steve Heiden that Arians said made a difference. Eventually, the light bulb turned on.
“About midway through last year,” Arians said. “He and Steve Heiden would stay after practice every day and just work on base blocking, and he has become a really good one.”
Fells caught a short pass over the middle from quarterback Carson Palmer in the second quarter and turned it into a 48-yard reception by stiff-arming Saints safety Rafael Bush to carry the ball to the New Orleans 18-yard line. The play helped set up Andre Ellington’s 1-yard touchdown run for a 14-3 lead.
After the Saints pulled within 17-16 early in the fourth quarter, Fells recorded his first NFL touchdown when he shed his defender and caught a 17-yard pass at the pylon to put Arizona on top 24-16.
“Once I saw that coverage, I knew that Carson was going to be looking my way so I knew I had to make a great move and get away from my defender,” Fells said. “The biggest talk in the second half was ‘go out and finish drives.'”
One game does not make a star, but Fells is feeling comfortable for the first time in his short NFL career. The Cardinals are feeling every bit as comfortable with Fells in the lineup.
“Knowing the offense is a big thing, and then knowing the coach has a lot of confidence in you, that builds your confidence as well,” Fells said. “Like I’ve said before, I’m just trying to catch up to the talent we have at tight end.
“We’ve got a two-time Pro Bowler with Jermaine Gresham and Mo (Ifeanyi Momah) and Troy Niklas is young and big. It’s a great group to be a part of but it will be even better if I can contribute to the group.”
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