Dan Arnold Can Find Red Zone Niche For Cardinals

Photo: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Cardinals can only go up from here, or at least that’s the way it seems. The Cardinals, who last had a winning season in 2015—which was nearly smack dab in the middle of former head coach Bruce Arians’ tenure—have invested a lot into their offense with the hopes of turning things around.

Arizona brought in the young, former collegiate coach Kliff Kingsbury, spent the No. 1 overall pick on a quarterback (one year after spending the No. 10 pick on a quarterback), and more recently pulled off one of the biggest offseason heists to acquire wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. One addition, however, may have flown under the radar, at least to those not privy to the Cardinals. 

Last season, tight end Dan Arnold was released from the New Orleans Saints in December and claimed off waivers by the Cardinals the next day. Arnold was inserted into the lineup more than a week later and earned his first start in the final regular season game, where he recorded 76 yards and one touchdown on four receptions. In three games with the Cardinals, he totaled 102 yards and two touchdowns on 10 catches.

The Cardinals haven’t utilized tight ends like their NFC West counterparts, the San Francisco 49ers, or other teams across the league, the Kansas City Chiefs or the New England Patriots. Granted, Arizona didn’t have the talent of George Kittle, Travis Kelce, or at one point, Rob Gronkowski. Arnold is definitely not in that category, but his size, downfield threat, and flashes of production can lend the Cardinals to incorporating him more in the future, especially in the red zone.

Arnold isn’t a prototypical tight end. He looks more like a receiver at 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds. An undrafted free agent out of the 2017 class, Arnold will have an opportunity to fill that tweener role in Kingsbury’s Air Raid system. Don’t expect him to have a Kittle-type season or anything—while Cardinals’ fans are high on his potential, Arnold still has to work up the depth chart. He’s TE3 behind projected starter Maxx Williams and Darrell Daniels, but none have made significant splashes. 

Williams, who joined Arizona’s organization last season after four years with the Baltimore Ravens, had 202 yards and one touchdown on 15 receptions in 2019. He’ll continue to be the team’s premier pass-blocker out of this group. Daniels was claimed off waivers in December 2018 and jumped from the practice squad to the active roster for much of the 2019 season. He had a few receptions and will be a quality special teams player. The Cardinals didn’t make any offseason moves at tight end, aside from a hopeful receiver convert Dylan Cantrell, which leaves Arnold. 

Quarterback Kyler Murray is a big fan, saying last season after a game against the Cleveland Browns that he’s “never had a guy that big that can do what [Arnold] can do.” In Arnold’s Arizona debut against Cleveland in Week 15, he caught a contested pass in the corner of the end zone. The quick, six-yard score was the Cardinals’ most improbable completion of the season, according to NFL’s Next Gen Stats. Check out the second video below.

It was beautiful; from Murray’s red-zone accuracy to Arnold’s outstretched arms bending backward. Murray could continue to use Arnold’s big-bodied presence in the red zone, an avenue Arnold can use to cement his status with the team. Williams can’t bring that same catchability and Daniels is largely unproven. 

Murray already has a middling completion rate in the red zone. He connected with pass-catchers on 56% of his red-zone throws and the percentage decreased when looking at how many trips to the red zone ended with a touchdown. The Cardinals were one of the worst teams in the league, ranking 29th, in converting red-zone trips into touchdowns. Arizona did so 45% of the time; it was a pretty drastic drop from 2018 when Arizona had the ninth-best conversion rate (64%). 

Defenses already have to prepare to face two of the most dynamic receivers in Hopkins and Larry Fitzgerald. Arnold can work into more of a traditional tight end role, but also continue to be a go-to target in the red zone. In the Cardinals’ remodeled offense, Arnold can grow into what we see from the more athletic tight ends today across the NFL.