Following a career-year in which he caught 31 of 45 targets with the Arizona Cardinals for 438 and four touchdowns, Panthers tight end Dan Arnold has been a regular mention during training camp as one of Carolina’s most consistently impressive players. Though he is not a household name yet, Rams fans have surely screamed his name in vein several times over.
First, Arnold had four catches for 76 yards and a touchdown in a 31-24 win in Los Angeles in 2019.
And fittingly second, Arnold had two touchdowns in a 38-28 Rams win last December.
If you find yourself skeptical of Arnold’s ascension because he’s a former undrafted free agent who has yet to come on a lot of people’s radars, that’s mostly due to the fact that he was a college wide receiver at Division-III Wisconsin-Platteville who was only given an opportunity to keep his fight alive in the NFL if he could transition into being a tight end.
One of the only issues being that he was 222 lbs — big for a receiver, light for a tight end. And Arnold had never played tight end. How much work does it really take to transition from being an outside wide receiver to being an in-line tight end? Is it as simple as learning new plays in the playbook?
Arnold mentioned how it’s not that in a press conference on Monday, responding to a question about the Jacksonville Jaguars cutting Tim Tebow and ending his bid to become an NFL tight end. Arnold was signed by the New Orleans Saints as an undrafted free agent in 2017.
Arnold admitted that when he walked into Saints camp, he didn’t really know what he was walking into. Having played a different position at a fairly low level of college football, he had to learn a brand new language, immediately, with a crazy person yelling at him.
“I think the biggest thing was ‘Holy crap, there’s a lot of information to know,’” Arnold said of his rookie year. “Just the nature of the position, the protections, we’re in the run game and also the route concepts. There’s just a lot of information you have to know.
“But that’s just the first step in the mastery of it is getting all that stuff down, because you can’t really go and succeed at tight end unless you know what you’re doing. You can get lucky a couple times and make a couple of plays here and there. But for the most part, you have to be a smart football player, know what’s going on, be able to read defenses.
“Next to quarterback, it’s maybe the most intricate position. For me, that was the toughest thing. Since I played receiver in college, it was an ABC of offense, compared to what I had done.”
The Los Angeles Rams drafted a player in the fourth round this year who bears a lot of comparison to Dan Arnold. Both Jacob Harris and Arnold entered the NFL with a need to add weight to catch up to their tight end peers in the league. That’s never going to happen for Harris, who entered at 219 lbs, whereas the players who you think of as “tight ends” like George Kittle, Tyler Higbee, Darren Waller, and Travis Kelce, are all over 250.
Just as this hasn’t prohibited Arnold from improving to the point of competing to be Carolina’s Week 1 starter this year, it may not prevent Harris from doing the same eventually. Make note that Arnold began his journey to tight end four years ago.
He spent his first season on injured reserve, then made the 53-man roster in his second season. Arnold played in 10 games and was targeted 19 times. In his third season he was waived, then caught on with the Cardinals in time for that game against the Rams. It wasn’t until his fourth season as a tight end that Arnold became a true piece of a franchise’s game plan.
It could also be true that Arnold had a steeper learning curve than Harris, or that Harris could be an even quicker study than Arnold, we won’t be able to predict that today. However, four years is still a long time and to cut that learning curve by even half would be impressive.
We do know that thus far the highlights and positive receiving moments we’ve seen in camp and the preseason are now here in the NFL, same as they were during Harris’s final season at UCF. But all those highlights are still of Harris as an outside wide receiver and not playing the tight end position.
This is understandable, given what Arnold has laid out as the actual work that it takes to become a tight end for the first time. Not just in the NFL, but at any level. The work that Higbee has to do in the trenches play after play is nothing like the work that DeSean Jackson will have to do on the outside, and vice versa, there are reasons Higbee doesn’t play the X.
Harris, like Arnold once was, is in the difficult position of being stuck between the X and the Y.
Arnold also had a notable tight ends coach in New Orleans, working directly for now-Lions head coach Dan Campbell, a person known for being tough on his players.
“Yeah, I definitely got screamed at a couple of times by Dan Campbell; he certainly let me have it a time or two,” Arnold said with a laugh. “What a lot of people don’t see, you get in the meeting room, you watch the film and do all that, he’s one of the smartest people I know in terms of football, and he’s going to coach you the right way. He’ll get hot and bothered, especially if you make the same mistake a number of times, like I may or may not have done.
“But the thing that made him such a great coach, is ‘This is why we’re doing it, let me show you how to do it.’ He did a hell of a job, that’s for sure.”
Harris also has a great tight ends coach: Sean McVay. Who, of course, has a glowing endorsement of his own tight ends coach, Wes Phillips, and McVay has routinely been mentioning that he and Harris are making progress in getting him prepared to play tight end. Eventually.
“We moved him around a little bit. He was mostly detached from the core tonight. So what his role remains to be, his role is to be determined for us offensively but it was encouraging to see him do those types of things,” McVay said. “I expect him to be a big contributor on special teams. I know Joe (DeCamillis) and Dwayne Stukes love what he’s done. He’s got a good look in his eye. You can see he’s a player who’s excited about learning. Wes Phillips has done a nice job. I think getting him back in, having a couple weeks now to settle in and be able to do more because that tight end position involves so many intricacies, whether you’re in line or detached in the slot as a receiver like he was tonight. So looking forward to see him continue to grow.”
Every time McVay has talked about Harris, it seems he wants to make sure he’s directing the reports in a way that is both encouraging to Harris and realistic to everyone else that this is a long process. A process that takes years, not months. It is pretty clear that McVay wants Harris to be involved somehow — definitely any sort of Hail Mary seems like his wheelhouse, so there’s that — but there’s two things that simply do not make logical sense right now:
- Harris playing the same kind of snaps at Tyler Higbee at any point in 2021.
- Harris taking away snaps from Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, or even DeSean Jackson at this point.
You can’t just give opportunities to two players on the same play. You can’t give to one without taking away from another. Even if McVay had to call on his depth at receiver, Van Jefferson is probably next in line, and then perhaps Tutu Atwell. Because on top of needing a lot of time to learn how to play tight end, Harris is also not going to get as much education on how to play wide receiver.
Jacob Harris could have a fantastic career ahead of himself because he is one of the most unique athletes in a sea of athletes and he astoundingly seems to have receiving talent to go with it after only a few years of playing football. McVay is stressing the value that Harris will have on special teams though because he likely expects that is where the vast majority of his snaps will come from in 2021. That leaves one important question for Saturday’s game against the Las Vegas Raiders:
Will Harris play his first ever snaps at tight end?
I think that may be something left for 2022.