John Carlson was the Arizona Cardinals’ first free agent signing of 2014 and is currently penciled in as the starter of the team’s very deep tight end corps. However, as he joined the Burns and Gambo show Thursday on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, the 30-year-old veteran spent significant time shedding light on one of his young backups, rookie Troy Niklas.
“Troy is a physical specimen,” Carlson said. “He’s massive. It’s kind of scary to say that we play the same position, because he’s so much bigger than I am. And he’s also much, much younger — which is also scary. He’s got all the tools to be an excellent, well-rounded tight end in the NFL. And he’s just got to continue to work and learn the system and work on all the fundamentals and techniques that are important to being a good tight end.”
Carlson, himself, is no runt at 6-foot-5 and 248 pounds, but the second-round draftee Niklas gives the Cardinals even better size at the position at 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds.
The seven-year veteran further ruminated on Niklas’ imposing presence yet youthful appearance.
“He looks like a 12-year-old boy that swallowed a grizzly bear,” Carlson chuckled. “I mean, I don’t shave all that often; I can’t grow a beard or anything. But I don’t know if he’s ever shaved; he’s 21 years old.”
Both Carlson and Niklas are Notre Dame products, but Carlson said he and his younger counterpart went down very different paths to becoming tight ends in the NFL.
“He’s still learning the position,” he said. “His true freshman year, he played linebacker at Notre Dame; he started at linebacker and played a whole season that way. Then they threw him over at tight end the next year, and he backed up Tyler Eifert, who was a first-round pick that year . And then he started for a year, and then he’s a second-round pick. I wish I could’ve done that. I went through five years of kind of working my way up in college to get drafted.
“So he’s got a lot to learn. And he’s got a lot of tools. I think it’ll be fun to work with him. He’s a great kid, and I think he’s going to be special.”
In his lone year as a starter for the Fighting Irish, Niklas caught 32 balls for 498 yards and five touchdowns, with his longest reception going for 66 yards.
For the Cardinals, Carlson is backed up by Rob Housler and Andre Hardy on the team’s first depth chart released for 2014. Niklas and fellow imposing tight end Darren Fells are not listed, but that doesn’t mean either is out of the running for a final roster spot.
The Cardinals got a little less crowded at tight end Wednesday when Jake Ballard surprisingly retired at the age of 26. Carlson talked about what Ballard’s departure means for the TE corps.
“We were disappointed that Jake wasn’t able to continue with us, because he’s a good friend, and we know how much he loves the game of football,” the Cardinals starter said. “But as far as our preparation is concerned, no matter how many guys you have in the room or who those guys are, I think we all have to have that same focus of just trying to improve a little bit every day and continuing to really understand the system … and trying to contribute to our offense in as many ways as possible. That’s one of the reasons our offense is so exciting as a tight end: We’re asked to do so many different things.”
Housler, listed at No. 2 on the depth chart, led the Cardinals tight end group with 454 yards on 39 receptions. Carlson was asked how the fourth-year Cardinal is handling all the new competition at the TE spot.
“We are competing for jobs; we realize that,” the veteran said. “But we’re competing with each other. We’re working with each other. We help each other out. Rob has been fantastic to me since day one — the first day I met him in April; he didn’t have to be that way, because they signed me and we play the same position: We’re kind of the ‘move’ tight end. And everyone’s been that way to everyone else in our position group. We know that we won’t all make the team; we understand that. But I don’t think anyone’s really concerned about that. It’s just taking things a day at a time.”