TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) A big, dynamic tight end is a mismatch nightmare for NFL defenses.
Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham are too quick for a linebacker and too big for a safety.
” When you have a tight end you can count on to catch the football, especially in the red zone, it’s huge,” Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. ”It gives the defense another guy to worry about. You have to pick who you are going to single cover and if you are going to double cover one of them.”
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A new crop of sure-handed, athletic tight ends surfaced in a big way in Sunday’s season openers.
”It’s a special position,” Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said. ”The way football is going, it seems like kids aren’t gravitating as much to running back, they’re going to receiver.”
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Tyler Eifert and Darren Fells may not be familiar names around the league, but they soon could be.
Arizona safety Tyrann Mathieu, who stands 5-foot-9, is as good as anyone at defending the big guys, but says it’s a huge challenge.
”It’s tough to get around their bodies,” he said. ”They’re just so good at boxing you out and keeping you from the flight of the football. You just have to play ball-hawking football and just be extra competitive.”
Seferian-Jenkins was a rare bright spot for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their 42-14 loss to Tennessee. Slowed by injuries, the 2014 second-round pick out of Washington caught five passes for 110 yards. His two touchdowns matched his total for all of last season. His yards receiving in one game were almost half of his total of last year (221).
”I wasn’t here last year,” Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said, ”but Austin looked like he was moving towards the type of player that we all want him to be.”
The Bengals expected big things from Eifert a year ago, but he injured his elbow in the opener and never played again. He emphatically showed he was back with his nine-reception, 104-yard performance in Cincinnati’s 33-13 win over Oakland on Sunday.
Perhaps no one has a more interesting story than Fells. The 6-foot-7, 281-pound Arizona tight end played basketball at Cal-Irvine, then spent five years playing hoops in Belgium, Finland and Argentina before deciding to switch to football.
Fells toiled on the Cardinals practice squad in 2013, then played in 10 games last season, catching just five passes for 71 yards.
”It was like trying to learn Chinese coming in here,” he said. ”All the coaches were talking and I had no clue what they were talking about. Having to pick up the language first, then the playbook was second after that. It took a lot of time.”
Fells’ biggest challenge was learning to block. Catching came easier, thanks to all those years of basketball.
After a strong preseason, and with other tight ends struggling with injuries, Fells won the starting job.
In Arizona’s 31-19 opening win over New Orleans, he caught four passes for 82 yards, the most yards receiving in game for a Cardinals tight end since 1989. With fellow tight end Jermaine Gresham delivering a crushing block that cleared two defenders out of the way, Fells gained 48 yards on one play. His fingertip catch of Carson Palmer’s 17-yard pass for a touchdown clinched the victory with 1:33 to play.
”He knew he had to step up and make plays,” Palmer said, ”and to see him do what he did and exceed expectations was huge.”
Not unexpectedly, Gronkowski and fellow veteran tight ends Jared Cook and Heath Miller had big days.
So did Travis Kelce, who may not be a household name but probably should be. He had six catches for 106 yards and two scores in Kansas-City’s 27-20 win over Houston. For Chiefs fans, his performance was not unexpected: Kelce led the Chiefs with 67 catches for 862 yards last season.
”It’s one of those things where I want to have all the eyes on myself, so other guys can shine when I’m on the field,” Kelce said. ”Taking coverages, taking defenders away from other guys so they can get open. It’s going to be fun what we can really accomplish here.”
AP Sports Writers Joe Kay in Cincinnati, Fred Goodall in Tampa, and Dave Skretta in Kansas City, Missouri contributed to this report.
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