SB Nation is taking a look at the NFL's most notable underachievers, the players who failed to live up to big expectations in 2013, and exploring whether or not they can turn things around in 2014.
Rob Housler isn't known as an effective blocking tight end. He's billed as a pass-catching specialist, using a solid combination of size and speed to burn unsuspecting opponents. To this point, we've only seen flashes of the player Housler hopes to be, but some of those flashes have been promising.
In Week 17 last season, the Arizona Cardinals were fighting for a playoff spot against the San Francisco 49ers. Housler came up big in that game, registering five receptions for 78 yards. He also put up 70 yards earlier in the season, and 50 yards on two other occasions. They're not game-breaking, but it's the kind of production you want out of a starting tight end at the bare minimum.
He finished the 2013 season with 39 receptions for 454 yards, the latter of which was a career high. It was the most promising thing we've seen from him thus far, but Housler is fighting an uphill battle for a roster spot next season. Without having played a single snap since that five-catch, 78-yard performance against the 49ers, Housler seems to have lost his starting job.
How he got here
Housler was a third-round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, and joined a roster that wasn't strong at the tight end position. He wasn't the starter outright, but he did see some snaps, with 12 games played and 12 receptions over the course of that year. In 2012, he played in 15 games and upped his production with 45 receptions for 417 yards, but still no touchdowns.
That's the point in which Housler entered "make-or-break" territory. While the 2014 season might be his last chance to make an impression, one could argue that opportunity passed in 2013 given the roster around him. Failing to significantly build on his 417 yards in 2012 might have cost him a spot.
Arizona brought in John Carlson this offseason, a tight end well-known for his receiving ability. He's also a capable blocker, and he's shown an awful lot more than Housler in the past. Most believe that Carlson, who has looked impressive so far this offseason, has already jumped ahead of Housler on the depth chart. Carlson has 177 receptions for 1,906 yards and 14 touchdowns in five seasons in the NFL.
On top of that, they selected Troy Niklas in the second round of the 2014 Draft. Niklas has some raw talent as a receiver and many believe he may already be ahead of Housler on the depth chart as well. Then there's Jake Ballard, who has recovered from 2013 injuries and should now be in the fray as well. That's three tight ends who could conceivably end up ahead of Housler on the depth chart before the end of training camp.
The one thing Housler has going for himself right now is familiarity with the system and the fact that he's got more raw, athletic talent than any other individual player in the group. The things going against him include his lack of blocking ability, Carlson's talent, Nicklas' upside and Ballard's all-around ability.
There's no shortage of young, hungry players vying for every position in the NFL. If Housler lost his spot on the roster and failed to show anything that might interest another team, the league would forget him in a heartbeat. That's just the way this game works, so the stakes are very high for someone like Housler. This is the final year of his rookie contract, and the Cardinals can financially afford to keep him on, but the possibility of them wanting the roster spot for someone else is very real.
What he needs to do is make that final roster by any means necessary. It's unlikely that he's shown enough over the past three seasons to earn enough goodwill to get a guaranteed spot on another team if he gets released before the 2014 season, so he needs to be able to compete. Once he's on, every single snap he takes will be an audition with both the Cardinals and the rest of the NFL. He's not only playing for a new contract or a spot on the Cardinals; he's playing for a job in general.
Can he succeed in 2014
Housler is 6'5, 250 pounds and runs like a wide receiver. He has all the physical tools to succeed, and doesn't have too much trouble with drops. But he's just not consistently getting open and providing a reliable target for Carson Palmer, and that's a huge issue. Housler can't rely on his potential at this point, he has to show something, and soon.
He'll probably get a chance to do so if he makes the roster. If he doesn't, smart money is on him signing with another team and possibly getting a chance there. If he finds his way onto the field -- any field -- then he'll have a solid chance at success. But the field might be too crowded for that to happen in Arizona.