As the 2019 football season approaches we continue our Cardinals position-by-position series:
Today: Offensive line
No position figures to be as scrutinized and under constant surveillance as this group, which seemed to be blamed for most if not all of the Cardinals’ many ills in 2018.
Sam Bradford couldn’t keep his starting job? It was the offensive line’s fault. Josh Rosen didn’t show enough consistent progress upon taking over the role as a rookie? Blame the O-line. David Johnson looked average, and the wide receivers failed to gain any separation and make enough big plays? You know where to point the finger.
Even though General Manager Steve Keim added two new starters up front and brought in two others with previous NFL starting experience, the Cardinals’ offensive line is likely to be vilified until the team returns to its winning ways and makes it to the postseason. And you’ll be hard-pressed to see any of the national pundits giving Arizona much of a chance of that happening.
Regardless of how many wins they finish with, the Cardinals’ offensive line should be better in 2019. They replaced oft-injured guard Mike Iupati with a bigger, stronger version in free-agent J.R. Sweezy, who has started 78 of the 88 career NFL games he has played in, including all 15 for the Seahawks last season. They fixed the revolving door they had at right tackle by trading for Marcus Gilbert, who started 88 of the career 89 games he played for the Steelers.
They also added an experience guard in Max Garcia, who started 41 of 57 games for the Broncos.Keim added two more offensive linemen during the draft in center/guard Lamont Gaillard, a sixth-round pick from Georgia, and tackle Joshua Miles, a seventh-round pick out of Morgan State.
Two undrafted rookie free agents also are presently on the 90-man roster in 6-foot-6, 300 pound-plus tackles William Sweet from North Carolina and Tariq Cole from Rutgers. Add them all up and with the several other linemen that return, the Cardinals have 18 offensive linemen overall as they prepare for the start of camp.
If it’s true about what they say regarding strength in numbers, the Cardinals should feel fortunate. Everything will be determined, of course, by the durability and performance of the five starters and the four to five pivotal backups behind them. That’s where it gets a little bit dicey.
At least three, and possibly four, of the potential starters all missed time last year with knee injuries that shortened their seasons. They are left tackle D.J. Humphries, guard Justin Pugh, Gilbert and A.Q. Shipley, who will be competing for the starting job at center with second-year pro Mason Cole. Not only that, but two returning backups who were pressed into starting roles — guard Jeremy Vujnovich and tackle Korey Cunningham — also ended the season on injured reserve. Garcia, meanwhile, is returning from a torn ACL which he suffered in mid-November. Two other linemen no longer with the team — Iupati and fellow guard John Wetzel — also ended the year on IR.
The good news is that all the returning linemen are expected to report to camp healthy enough to participate, and most of them will be 100 percent fully recovered. The biggest question mark regardless of his stats when camp begins is Humphries, the former first-round pick out of Florida who has never played a full NFL season and has missed 21 games over the past three seasons because of injuries.
He participated in most of the team’s offseason workouts and practices, however, and credits pilates exercises with helping him shed some excess weight.
“I’m just trying to get in the best shape I can, get as strong as I can,” Humphries said, adding of his unfortunate luck with injuries, “It’s kind of hard to guard yourself against 600 pounds falling on your legs. I don’t know what workout to do for that. But if y’all can figure it out, please let me know and I’m going to do it.”
Kliff Kingsbury refused to speculate on Humphries’ availability once camp starts, saying only, “We’ll be smart with how we use him, but he’s been working really hard. … I’m excited, though. I think Marcus is going to be great for him. A veteran like that, both Florida cats that will have a good vibe together, I’m really excited to see what he does this season.”
Sweezy is expected to settle in as Arizona’s starting left guard with Pugh moving over to his natural position at right guard. Both bring serious physicality and a bit of a nasty streak, which should help ratchet emotions up front. In the meantime, it’s a wait and see situation as to what Kingsbury decides to do at center between Shipley, the veteran, and Cole, who started all 16 games last season and now has a consecutive games-started streak of 120 dating back to his freshman year in high school.
“I’m going in as I’ve got over 100 games played in the NFL, so if they want to give it to someone else, that’s cool, that’s up to them,” a clearly-agitated Shipley said earlier this year. “But I’m going in as the guy. That’s the way I operate.”
Player on the hot seat
D.J. Humphries: He’s entering the final year of his contract and knows that if he can’t play to expectations or prove he’s durable enough to last a full season he won’t be getting a big pay day from the Cardinals or anyone in 2020. Even if Humphries were to play all 16 games, it will be interesting to see just how much interest he will generate as an impending unrestricted free agent. He’ll be under enormous pressure as the team’s main blindside protection for Murray and even if Murray is able to scramble out of danger and avoid any blocking breakdowns by Humphries at left tackle, it only takes one or two ghastly hits to end a quarterback’s season. The top two backups pushing Humphries will be Harrison and Cunningham, but don’t put it past Keim to bring in a veteran from somewhere if things don’t work out.
Potential breakout performer
Mason Cole/Korey Cunningham: Admittedly, this is kind of covering our bases, but it’s for a good reason in that both players could end up being starters at some point this season. Cole could win the starting assignment at center outright during training camp and the preseason if he excels and Shipley were to struggle for any reason such as having a setback with his knee. Cole also bring some position flexibility to the team in that he can also play either guard position, making him a very valuable asset. Given Humphries’ lack of availability, meanwhile, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see Cunningham get a crack at left tackle should there be an opening. He was getting regular reps at both tackle positions during the offseason and logged six starts a year ago as a rookie, something he says he can proudly put in his back pocket.
What he said
“I play to the whistle. Some people take it as playing dirty. I’m not a dirty player. I just play hard and aggressive until the very end and I’m going to make people quit. At the end of the day, that’s my goal. That’s what I bring to the table and I’m not going to change.”
— Cardinals guard J.R. Sweezy
Have an opinion on the Arizona Cardinals? Reach McManaman at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @azbobbymac. Listen to him live every Tuesday afternoon between 2-5:30 on AM 1060/SB Nation Radio on Calling All Sports with Roc and Manuch and every Wednesday afternoon between 1-4 on Fox Sports 910-AM on The Freaks with Kenny and Crash.
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