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Following the injury to Maxx Williams, here's what the Cardinals must consider when addressing tight end
Barring a minor miracle, based on the end result of a vicious collision Sunday against San Fransisco, standout tight end Maxx Williams is likely set to miss significant time with a right knee injury.
On Wednesday morning, the Cardinals announced Williams would be heading to injured reserve with no definitive timetable for a return.
The seventh year player, who is currently in his third year with the club, was enjoying a banner season that was set to see the former Minnesota Gopher hit career receiving highs across the board.
The magnitude of the loss, both from a receiving and blocking standpoint, will have significant ripple effects through the Arizona Cardinal offense. The team largely stood pat at the position last offseason in large part because of their internal belief in Williams. While always known for his physical presence as a blocker, Williams’ early season receiving efforts were one of the most surprising and welcomed factors in Arizona’s 5-0 start to the year.
Now the team must forge ahead without one of their key contributors as they enter a critical stretch of games that includes the likes of playoff contenders Cleveland, Green Bay, San Francisco (again) and Carolina.
While it may seem borderline inappropriate to discuss replacement options for as player as beloved as Williams, that’s the nature of the NFL. It’s the continual machine that keeps rolling no matter who’s absence. Thus was the case Tuesday, when the Cardinals were seen working out several free agents, eventually agreeing to add former Philadelphia Eagle Richard Rodgers to the club’s practice squad.
Rodgers likely represents a long term play at the position for the greater good of the 2021 campaign. Get the former Eagle acclimated to Kingsbury’s offense over the course of the next 4-6 weeks and perhaps he can make a Sunday contribution down the line. Regardless, with all due respect to Rodgers, his addition Tuesday afternoon was not exactly headline grabbing for a team that suddenly has a huge hole to fill offensively.
Keeping in the short term, when looking ahead to this weekend’s matchup at Cleveland, the Cardinals will likely lean on the return of TE Darrell Daniels. The veteran out of the University Washington, who has been with the team since 2018, had missed Sunday’s matchup against the 49ers thanks to his placement on the COVID-19 list.
Daniels, along with former backups Demetrius Harris and Ross Travis, will likely do their best to fill the void at the tight end position against that vaunted front of the Cleveland Browns. This audition will likely be a week-to-week instance for Daniels and company, allowing Cardinal GM Steve Keim to accurately assess the drop off seen by Williams’ absence.
In reality, however, Keim likely understands that what he currently has in house will only do as a placeholder until the former GM of the Year is able to swing a deal.
The Cardinals are in the midst of what certainly appears to be a special season. The unbeaten start, while not perfect, is also not a mirage and Keim most continue to act in an attempt to reinforce any cracks in the foundation that creep up over the course of this 17 game season.
That now includes tight end.
While the NFL mid-season trade deadline is still roughly three weeks away (November 2, 2021), Keim must be aggressive in the short term to accurately feel out the market of those who are actually available. The problem with this is, outside of several clearly rebuilding clubs (New York Jets, Detroit, Houston), too many teams may not yet be ready to part with legitimate assets at the position.
At surface level, the most logical trade option for the Cardinals would be to bring back 2020 staple Dan Arnold. The now 26-year old former wide receiver began the season with the Panthers after signing a modest two-year, $6 million deal with Carolina back on March 20th. Yet soon after the team suffered an injury to standout rookie CB Jaycee Horn, Arnold was inexplicably traded to football exile (otherwise known as Jacksonville) in a package centered around CB C.J. Henderson.
Due to the inclusion of a 2022 third round pick, the addition of Arnold in the deal was more or less viewed as a sweetener for Jaguar brass Urban Meyer and Trent Baalke. For what it’s worth, in his first start with the team this past Sunday against Tennessee, Arnold lead the team with 64 receiving yards on eight catches.
If Jacksonville were so inclined on repackaging their newest addition, it’s conceivable to suggest the Cardinals could send back a mere Day 3 pick for the remainder of Arnold’s contract. It should be noted that Arizona does not currently have a fourth round selection next offseason due to their 2021 draft package to net CB Marco Wilson.
While fans may shudder at the notion of Arnold’s return, given his lack of success as a pass/run blocker, the fact of the matter is that (for roughly 13 months) he was embedded in head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s system. In today’s hyper demanding NFL, familiarity is everything, which was a large reason the team opted to bring back defensive stall-worth Markus Golden this time last year.
At the end of the day, it’s just easy to go with what you know.
When looking at other potential options, perspective is key. No club of note is trading their tight end center piece to an uneatable team that is clearly desperate for an upgrade.
Which means you are not allowed to speculate on any player that has the last name of Kittle, Waller, Andrews or Kelce.
Most logical scenarios will see the Cardinals sniffing around team’s second and third tight ends while casually inquiring about the availability of the starter. Perhaps someone like Atlanta’s Hayden Hurst, who is clearly behind rookie Kyle Pitts, could be had in the right scenario. Hurst is a former first round pick of Baltimore who has some receiving options, yet is a fairly marginal blocker.
Then there’s New England’s Jonnu Smith, who signed a bloated free agent contract with the Pats this past spring only to see his year one usage with the club go down the toilet.
Against the dismal Houston Texans this past weekend, Smith was targeted just twice as the former third round pick has just 115 receiving yards on the season. Over the course of the next three years, Smith’s average base salary will cost the Patriots upwards of $14 million dollars per season.
Bill Belichick is known for pivoting off players quickly when they don’t fit his system, and has a relationship with the Cardinals following the 2016 deal for Chandler Jones. Smith was a quality receiving option during his time in Tennessee, averaging nearly 400 yards and six touchdowns during his final two seasons as a Titan.
Would the Cardinals have the stomach to absorb all or most of Smith’s guaranteed money? Would New England be interested in a package that included, say, Massachusetts native Andy Isabella?
These questions are certainly worth asking and are all about of the vetting process for Keim. It’s about weighing the necessary risks and capital involved in order to consummate a deal. Any hesitation on the part of Keim may be the result of his holdout for an upgrade at another position of need, ala CB or DT.
It’s fair to wonder if Keim and Kingsbury alike view the tight end position as somewhat of a luxury, considering their distinct lack of interest adding more bodies this offseason.
If that is the case, expect a slew of relatively low risk moves while the team attempts to work out any and all kinks left by Maxx Williams’ absence. The Cardinals do benefit from having one of, if not the deepest wide receiver room in all of pro football. Combine that with Chase Edmonds’ ability to catch the football out of the backfield and Kyler Murray should be fine from a distribution standpoint.
Yet in a division that sees the likes of LA, Seattle and San Francisco consistently taking big swings in an attempt to win now, the Arizona Cardinals must continue to follow suit if it means contending come January.
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