TEMPE, Ariz. - Troy Niklas is still learning to play tight end, and that's what made him so enticing to the Arizona Cardinals.
The Cardinals chose the 6-foot-6, 279-pound player out of Notre Dame in the second round of Friday's NFL draft, the 52nd player taken overall.
"He's a guy that in our mind has just started to scratch the surface on what he can become," Arizona general manager Steve Keim said.
It is the first time the Cardinals have drafted a tight end this high since they selected Doug Marsh of Michigan with the 33rd pick in 1980.
"This, to me, is a guy who could really transcend into being one of the top all-around tight ends at some point in his career," Keim said.
With their two third-round picks, the Cardinals went with defensive strength and offensive speed. They used the 84th pick to select defensive end Kareem Martin of North Carolina. With the 91st pick, obtained from New Orleans when they traded down in the first round, Arizona chose wide receiver John Brown of NCAA Division II Pittsburg State of Kansas.
With those selections and drafting Washington State safety Deone Bucannon in the first round, Arizona has addressed areas of need.
Niklas is considered the best blocking tight end in this year's draft crop, but the Cardinals see him as more than that.
"The trend is you find either the pass-catching tight end that can stretch the seam and create some mismatches," Keim said, "or you have sluggo that sits on the line of scrimmage, which is really your third tackle. It has been hard to find the tight end that is the dual threat, that can do both things and do both things well. That's what this guy is."
Niklas converted from outside linebacker after his freshman season and chose to enter the NFL draft after his junior year. In his 26 games at tight end, including starts in all 13 last season, Niklas caught 37 passes for 573 yards and six touchdowns. The bulk of those catches came last season, when he had 32 receptions for 498 yards and five scores, including a 66-yard scoring play in the season opener against Temple.
"I've still got a lot to learn," Niklas said, "and that's something that I didn't hide from teams."
Niklas has an impressive football lineage.
Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews is his uncle and current NFL players Clay and Casey Matthews are cousins. Another cousin, Jake Matthews, was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in the first round on Thursday.
Although he is primarily a blocker, Niklas has had some effective performances as a receiver. He caught six passes for 76 yards against Michigan and four for 76 yards in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl against Rutgers.
Keim said his team's draft board was "pretty well picked clean" but that Niklas was "a guy that we've followed for quite some time now."
Niklas was a highly recruited player out of Servite High School in Anaheim, California, choosing Notre Dame over USC. He said he was thrilled to be playing in the West.
"My family can come to the games. It's within driving distance," he said. "I'm unbelievably happy that I'm going there."
Arizona coach Bruce Arians said that had Niklas gone back to Notre Dame for his senior season, he probably "would have been a top 10 pick, with that skill set."
Niklas said the decision to leave was a difficult one.
"A lot of teams need a tight end," he said. "I just had a good feeling. Everything looked so bright I just went ahead and came out."
Martin played on the line in a 4-2-5 scheme at North Carolina but the Cardinals would like to use him at outside linebacker.
Asked about the difficulty of such a transition, Arians said one outside linebacker is essentially a defensive end and the other linebacker just has to stand up rather than go down in a stance.
"I think he's more comfortable with the hand in its dirt, so we'll see," Arians said.
The 5-foot-10 Brown, a three-time Division II All-American, ran a 4.34-second 40-yard dash, third-fastest at the NFL combine. Arizona also had a private workout with him.
Arians coached two other small receivers in T.Y. Hilton and Antonio Brown.
"He's kind of a combination of those two guys," Arians said, "very explosive but fearless going over the middle."
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