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Cardinals pre-camp preview: Tight ends exist, so will they be used?

Arizona Cardinals tight end Ricky Seals-Jones (86) is hit by Los Angeles Rams inside linebacker Mark Barron (26) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The Arizona Cardinals report to duty on Wednesday and open 2019 training camp with their first practice the following day. To preview the storylines heading into head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s first year on the job, let’s take a look at the roster by position groups.

The tight end position has traditionally been one lacking eye-popping production for the Cardinals. NFL-wide, the position has seen a boom in use for teams lucky enough to find pass-catching talent. It’s one of the great mysteries under Kingsbury: Will a reshuffled room be utilized by its innovative head coach, or is the talent not there to warrant much attention as the wide receivers get all the work?


Projected starters

Charles Clay, Maxx Williams

Depth

Ricky Seals-Jones, Caleb Wilson, Darrell Daniels, Drew Belcher

Biggest storyline

Point blank: Will the Cardinals use their tight ends?

Kingsbury has maintained that the stereotypes about his spread, Air Raid style offense are just that. He’s called some of those assumptions about the identity — about the hyper-speed pace and lack of a run game — misnomers.

Regarding whether Kingsbury will often use the 10 personnel packages of four receivers, one running back and no tight ends remains to be seen.

Veteran Charles Clay, a free agent addition who enters camp on the PUP list with a knee injury, believes Arizona values versatility and will utilize its tight ends as it does its backs and receivers: to create confusion and target matchups.

“I think it’s exactly that, just being versatile and being able to do a lot of good things,” Clay told Bickley & Marotta on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station. “We got a good tight end group of guys who can all wear multiple hats. But you definitely have to be — you’ll see them lining up in all different kinds of places. That’ll pretty much be our role, to just move around and try to find those mismatches.”

It’s true that Kingsbury does have tough roster decisions to make regarding tight end and, in relation, receiver.

Clay has proven himself with the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills, as has Maxx Williams, who with the Baltimore Ravens was primarily used as a run-blocker.

Arizona also has Ricky Seals-Jones, a converted receiver, returning, as well as incoming rookie Caleb Wilson, who led all NCAA tight ends with 965 receiving yards at UCLA in 2018.

X-factor

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

For the first time in his eight-year NFL career, Clay didn’t record a touchdown in 2018. His streak of 500-plus receiving yards ended after five straight seasons as well.

The 30-year-old enters training camp on the PUP list, adding more questions about how ready he is to contribute. His status as the de facto starting tight end could be up in the air. His resume goes unchallenged, however.

“I’ve always been enamored with the different ways he can be used, whether it’s in the backfield blocking or you can hand him the football or he can be a matchup at wide receiver,” Kingsbury said of Clay at the NFL Combine. “He can just do a lot of different things.”

Who is the top option after that?

Seals-Jones could make a leap in an offense similar to the one he played in college at Texas A&M, but he will need to improve as a run-blocker.

Williams has a shot to be the man as well. He recorded 268 yards on 32 catches (47 targets) as a rookie in 2015 but was utilized less often as a receiver the last two years after missing most of 2016 due to injury.

He said it

“Part of it was is we just couldn’t find ’em — a tight end, a true tight end,” said Mike Leach, the father of the Air Raid system who joined Doug & Wolf in January. “A lot of people are real stubborn about, they have to have a true tight end. The trouble is God only made a few true tight ends and most of them are playing defensive line.”

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