TEMPE, Ariz. — Back in 2006, the Arizona Cardinals attempted to turn a defensive-turned-offensive lineman into a tight end.
Fred Wakefield’s career ended with him catching just two passes for 24 yards.
Like Wakefield eight years ago, the Cardinals’ newest tight end, Troy Niklas, is also still learning the tight end position.
However, unlike Wakefield, whose move was necessitated largely due to a need at the position and a lack of playing time elsewhere, Niklas’ transition was all about getting the most out of his abilities.
“I just feel like it’s a better position for my skill set and better use of my size than outside linebacker,” he said Tuesday while speaking the media at the team’s Tempe training facility.
Niklas spent just two seasons as a tight end in South Bend, catching 37 passes for 573 yards and six touchdowns. As a junior last season, the 21-year-old caught 32 passes for 498 yards and five touchdowns, showing a clear progression of his comfort at the position.
The Cardinals, having spent a second round pick on him, are banking on his continued development. If they’re right, the 6-foot-6, 270-pounder could become a valuable weapon in the offensive attack.
“In the NFL, tight ends are being used so much more than in the past,” Niklas said. “It’s a pretty vital part of the offense now. It’s just hard for linebackers to cover us because of our speed, and it’s hard for safeties to cover us because of our size. So it creates a lot of mismatches.”
That’s the idea, and it’s the type of advantage the team has never really had but has been a staple of Bruce Arians’ offense in previous stops.
Of course, one of the other things the Cardinals liked about Niklas — and one of the reasons they drafted him 52nd overall — was his ability to block. The rookie said that’s a part of the game he enjoys because he likes the contact and feels there’s no better feeling than getting a good block on a surprised defensive end.
And perhaps that mindset should not come as a surprise, especially given that he’s spent a lot of his career dishing out punishment rather than receiving it.
“I’ve definitely developed a mentality of getting after people, and not just doing it once, like all game long, just wearing on you,” he said. “And really letting you know that I’m on the field and I’m going to be here all night.”
Niklas said the Cardinals have told him the initial plan is to use him as an edge setter in the run game and then going from there in the passing game.
And as he embarks on his rookie season, Niklas is facing fewer questions about his ability to handle defensive linemen than he is about his prowess for catching the football. Given his relative inexperience as a tight end, there isn’t much film of him being a dominant member of the passing game.
Fair or not, people wonder if he can be a threat there.
“I think there is a lot that I can improve on, but there’s a lot that’s a pretty significant natural ability,” he said when asked if receiving is something he can learn. “I’ve played basketball since I was probably like seven up until my senior year of high school, so I’ve been used to catching balls my entire life.”
Until it happens on the field, though, people may have some doubt. While all rookies, at least to some extent, have something to prove, Niklas may have a bit more considering his draft status but relative inexperience at his position. That’s fine, he said, because at this point it doesn’t matter what he’s done in high school or college; the only thing that matters is what he does in the NFL as an Arizona Cardinal.
“I’m just looking to work hard and produce as much as I can for the team,” he said.
And if he can do what the team believes he can, they’ll have themselves the type of player the organization has been seeking for a long, long time.
“They definitely say that the well-rounded tight end is a bit of a dying breed, but hopefully we can spark a little bit of a revival in that,” he said.