The Air Raid lineage of coach Kliff Kingsbury and the aggressive drafting of wide receivers last year played into the assumption that a young receiver would be the Arizona Cardinals’ breakout star in Year Two of the K1 and K2 era.
An assumption is all that might be.
The facts are this: The Cardinals didn’t embrace tight ends and become one of the NFL’s best rushing teams in 2019 only to dump that identity in 2020.
They didn’t extend tight end Maxx Williams in the middle of the season for no reason. They didn’t add tight end Dan Arnold off the New Orleans’ Saints scrap pile and turn the 6-foot-6 leaper into one of their favorite top red-zone targets by the end of the season just to bench him this year.
“I mean, we worked hard last year to kind of show we wanted to be part of this offense and that we could try and really contribute,” Williams said of the tight end group. “I think bringing in a guy like Dan Arnold last year really helped give us confidence and we’re really trying to build that this year in camp.
“I think this will be a big camp for Dan,” Williams added. “I think having this camp, having Dan going through a whole camp to learn the offense, really the sky’s going to be the limit for him. Me watching him, it’s fun. He loves being out there, I love being out there with him. We have a little thing going.”
As of three weeks before the season opener, it’s Arnold — and not any receiver — who is most likely to earn a significant bump in playing time alongside starting receivers DeAndre Hopkins, Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk.
“Last year was kind of weird because I came at such an awkward time,” said Arnold, who was picked up off waivers on Dec. 5 before making a debut two weeks later with a touchdown catch against the Cleveland Browns.
His scout team work of “Moss-ing” people earned him that chance to make a big play. Then Arnold ran with it. It became apparent that quarterback Kyler Murray loved Arnold’s ability to high-point balls, especially in the back of the end zone.
In the 2019 finale, Arnold played 30 snaps (44% of those available) and was targeted six times to finish with four catches for 76 yards and a score against the Los Angeles Rams. That amount of work wasn’t about seeing what a backup tight end could do — Arnold had earned them, Kingsbury said.
Murray’s and Arnold’s on-field relationship has grown this offseason, but Arnold said just using this summer to get comfy within Kingsbury’s offense is why they can gain more of a feel for one another.
“Some of the checks we’re allowed to do in this offense, really, it allows athletes to have a lot of free range of getting open and finding green grass. I think that really helps,” Arnold said. “Working with Kyler on that level after plays, you can go and look and (ask), ‘What were you seeing here? What do you think here?’
“Just trying to work out so we’re both on the same page, having training camp in order to do all that, I think it’s going to pay dividends once we get to the season.”
Arnold comes across as modest in interviews. He doesn’t talk big or go out of his way to speak about his unusual path to the NFL — from not being recruited to the University of Wisconsin-Platteville to developing into an NFL prospect and then with the Saints over the past two-plus seasons.
There is some fire in there, however.
“Super intense,” Kingsbury said. “Not overly loud or out there with his thoughts, but you can tell he is locked in and he is physical. He wants the contact. He’s one of those who will scream every now and then just to see if guys are paying attention. You like that. The competitive nature is there day in and day out.”
The screaming, Arnold said, is just his way to keep the energy high.
“Kliff told me as long as I’m not screaming in his face or getting in his face, it’s all good,” Arnold said.
If all goes as planned for the Cardinals, Arnold will get his chances to become a known talent at the tight end position this year. Nationally, people are beginning to notice him after watching how Arnold went from scout team to focal point over the course of four weeks last year.
Arnold is aware of his growing fame and excited for a significant role in Arizona. He also knows that he must back the expectations put out there by his teammates and those in the national media.
“The biggest thing for me is to just stay consistent each and every day,” Arnold said. “There’s high hopes for everything, but at the end of the day it comes down to one’s execution.”