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Former Notre Dame tight end Troy Niklas offers Arizona Cardinals ‘really scary’ upside

TEMPE, Ariz. — For pretty much their entire stay in the Valley, the Arizona Cardinals have been searching for top-end production out of the tight end position.

Meet 6-foot-6, 270-pound Troy Niklas, the team’s second-round selection out of Notre Dame and new hope.

“He’s a guy that in our mind has just scratched the surface on what he can become,” Cardinals GM Steve Keim said, pointing to his build. “He’s got a tremendous physic, great size and athleticism.

“The upside is really scary when we look at the package.”

The Cardinals will be adding Niklas to a group that currently includes Rob Housler, Jake Ballard, John Carlson, Brett Brackett, Darren Fells and Andre Hardy.

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said the selection says nothing about the rest of the group, but instead was just a way to continue improving an important position.

“Obviously we like tight ends; we use a lot of them,” he said. “This is a great fit for us.”

Arians said having someone like Niklas means the team does not have to put an extra tackle on the field just to run the ball. They did that some last season, and it’s not something the coach would like to do again.

“When you put a tackle in like most teams when they struggle at the tight end spot versus defensive ends versus 4-3 teams, you lose a lot because the safety is down there two yards from the line of scrimmage because you know he’s not going off for a pass,” he said. “This is a big, strong guy who can go out for passes and also block the line of scrimmage, so we’re very versatile now.”

Niklas comes to the Cardinals with just two seasons as a tight end, though, with 37 receptions, 573 yards and six touchdowns to his name. He did catch 32 passes for 498 yards and five scores last season, though, and appears to be growing into the position.

Which while he may be new to, is one he wanted to play all along.

“I really felt like tight end was my natural position, so when Coach Kelly came to me and asked me if I wanted to switch, I was all for it,” he said. “I was pretty ecstatic about it.”

Regarded as the best blocking tight end in the draft, Niklas is an emerging talent as a receiver, though the Cardinals believe he’s ready to contribute now in all facets of the game.

“How long does it take to get on an airplane,” Arians quipped when asked how close Niklas is to being ready to play.

Added Keim: “Once he gets through baggage claim.”

To be fair, Arians admitted that having a player as raw and filled with potential as Niklas is a bit intriguing, because he probably hasn’t received much tight end coaching and thus has plenty of room to improve.

Niklas himself sees that as an advantage.

“I haven’t been able to learn bad techniques and really develop a lot of those bad qualities that you can develop through bad coaching,” he said, adding that there wasn’t bad coaching at Notre Dame. “Personally, I think it will help coach be able to mold me into the tight end that he wants me to be instead of having to change me from something I’ve already become.”

What he can become is really what this pick is all about. Arians said if Niklas had returned to school for his senior season, chances are he would have been a top-10 pick in next year’s draft.

That may be a bit on the optimistic side, but the coach’s point is understandable. Players with Niklas’ size and skill set can present difficult matchups for opposing defenses, and if the tight end turns into the player the Cardinals think he will, they may have the type of weapon that gave their own defense fits last season.

“The trend is you find either the pass-catching tight end that can stretch the seam and creates some mismatches or you have a sluggo that sits on the line of scrimmage, which is really your third tackle,” Keim said. “It has been extremely hard to find the tight end that is a dual threat; that can do both things and do both things well. That’s what this guy is.”