ST. LOUIS – You ask Lance Kendricks about the new guy in town. You want to know more about the arrival’s impact. You want to know what he means for the St. Louis Rams’ depth at tight end and what he’ll do on Sundays to make memories. You want to know what makes him tick.
You ask Kendricks about Matthew Mulligan — the former New York Jets tight end who signed as a free agent with the Rams in March — and the second-year player cracks a smile. He chuckles. He says Mulligan is a strong guy, a weight room guy — something that becomes obvious when you see the 27-year-old’s 6-foot-4, 265-pound frame later on the recent afternoon.
But mostly, Mulligan is a joker. Hilarious, Kendricks says. The new guy was signed to add another name to the depth chart, but he’s already remembered for more.
“That guy’s funny,” Kendricks says.
This fall, though, Mulligan hopes his play is no laughing matter. He inked a two-year deal with the Rams more for his heart than his hands.
The reason? Mulligan is known as a blocking tight end. He had six catches for 60 yards through 34 games with 11 starts as part of the Jets after he was claimed off waivers in September 2009. Earlier, in 2008, the undrafted free agent from Maine bounced between the Miami Dolphins’ and Tennessee Titans’ practice squads.
“I hope I grow tremendously,” says Mulligan, who had five catches for 58 yards in nine starts last season. “When you go to different places, it’s a learning opportunity. To be able to play under a head coach like Jeff Fisher, an offensive coordinator like Brian Schottenheimer and a tight ends coach like Rob Boras — not a lot of guys get that chance. That’s three quality guys. I hope the things I do well I’ll do even better after the two-year stint.”
Sure, Mulligan’s signing is more symbolic than anything else. It shows how much of a premium is placed on his position as NFL offenses become more diverse. These days, tight ends are used as pass options, they are placed in the backfield, and they become matchup nightmares for defensive coordinators trying to scheme against quarterbacks with more weapons than before. They are valued.
As a result, journeymen like Mulligan can find a home. The Rams carried eight tight ends throughout minicamp. Fisher and his staff are expected to keep about four when the 53-man roster is set after training camp. However, there could be more depending on how Fisher and Schottenheimer – Mulligan’s coordinator during his time with the Jets – evaluate talent.
The coaches would be wise to keep a few more than planned, though. The Rams learned during a painful 2011 campaign how vital quality depth can be. Kendricks led all St. Louis tight ends with 28 catches for 352 yards. But Michael Hoomanawanui — the Rams’ other top option at the position — had seven catches for 83 yards before sustaining a torn right ACL late in the third quarter of an eventual victory over the Cleveland Browns in Week 10. The Illinois product was lost for the year.
“We really liked Lance back in New York when we looked at him,” Schottenheimer says. “I think he’s got a chance to be a terrific all-around player. Then we are complementing him with guys that can do some stuff in the running game, also some matchup (scenarios).
“We have some talented young players. I think if you watch Deangelo Peterson out here, even Jamie Childers is a guy that showed up, and we’ll be excited to get ‘Hooman’ (Hoomanawanui) back. Tight ends create a problem in this league, in our opinion, for matchups because you can get in multiple formations with those guys and sometimes they are in the backfield and sometimes they are playing receiver and sometimes they are in line and that allows you to create problems for a defense.”
Which is exactly how Mulligan hopes to contribute in his new environment. He misses some aspects about the Big Apple bustle. He misses his friend, Jets defensive end and fellow Black Bear Mike DeVito. He misses the Gotham buzz. The Jets gave him a foothold in the NFL, and it offered exposure to a larger world for someone who grew up in tiny West Enfield, Maine (population 1,600).
Still, Mulligan’s career has entered a new phase. He’s reunited with Schottenheimer in St. Louis, and that holds some intrigue. The new guy has skill worth scouting as the Rams’ tight-end race comes into focus later this summer.
“It’s a tight-end driven league now for the most part,” Mulligan says. “You bring in guys who are quality and can do their jobs. That’s what I am looking to do.” That’s no joke.