Cardinals free agency refresher: At TE, is passing or rushing the priority?
The National Football League’s new season officially begins next Wednesday.
League-wide, the Arizona Cardinals have the largest share of 2020 snaps taken by players who will enter free agency this offseason, according to OverTheCap.com. Forty-four percent of the team’s total snaps could be lost in free agency.
General manager Steve Keim will see what he can do to retain many of those players after an 8-8 season. But with spending limited due to a salary cap drop — plus teams expected to be shedding big contracts before free agency — there are many roster decisions to make on the fly.
This series, originally published in January, has been refreshed with any updates before free agency begins.
Players under contract
Maxx Williams ($3,218,750)
Dan Arnold (reportedly signed with Carolina)
Darrell Daniels (restricted)
The good news
Arizona got a full season of exposure for Dan Arnold and Darrell Daniels, two players the team suggested have not reached their respective ceilings.
The returns were hot and cold.
Arnold put together his best season yet, finishing with 438 receiving yards, which ranked third on the Cardinals. His four touchdown receptions that came in a chunk of the season from Weeks 11-14 tied for second-most on the team.
The Cardinals will be asking themselves how much better he can get after his first full year as a regular player. The 6-foot-6, 220-pound tight end was primarily acting as a fourth wide receiver, but he did get 143 run-blocking reps, according to Pro Football Focus.
Arnold was open during the year that he could get much better as a run-blocker.
Meanwhile, Daniels, who is more of an all-around tight end, made eight catches on 11 targets for 92 yards and a score in 2020. Arizona trusted Daniels much more than Arnold on running plays based on his snap counts, but he too had his ups and downs.
The Cardinals have the film to determine whether Arnold and Daniels can uncover more potential. Neither should command too much money as free agents and have a shot at returning.
Yet the Cardinals can internally debate whether they need to go after a more sure thing, to at least build the depth.
Head coach Kliff Kingsbury learned from 2019 that the tight end is an important piece to the NFL puzzle.
His favoring of 10 personnel sets of four receivers and no tight end fell off from 31% last season to 21% in 2020. More than that, the Cardinals used 12 personnel, or a two-tight end look, 30% of the time this past year — that’s the third-highest rate in the NFL.
They used multiple tight ends to that degree even though Maxx Williams, who posted very good run-blocking grades once again, only played in nine games all year as he battled ankle injuries dating back to training camp.
As discussed about Arnold and Daniels above, that limited the Cardinals. Their two best tight ends collectively weren’t great in the run game, according to the eye test and their PFF grades.
Arizona even knew it to the point where Kingsbury throughout the year shuffled in tight ends Jordan Thomas, Seth DeValve and Evan Baylis on certain packages.
Anyway, if the Cardinals want to use tight ends quite a bit of the time, they better be sure to have a deeper, more well-rounded room. It will help if Williams can return for a healthy year, of course.
If the team retains one or both of Arnold and Daniels, they either need to make a leap — or Arizona needs to add in free agency and/or the draft.
From a pass-catching perspective, improving with current NFL players could be pricey. On the other hand, having run-blockers at tight end might be the key to the offense finding a little more balance.
It’s arguable about which of those things would lead to a bigger jump for Arizona’s offense as a whole.