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Big Year Ahead for the Cardinals’ Big John Wetzel.

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Arizona Cardinals Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

As a Boston College alum (Class of 1978) and avid Arizona Cardinals’ fan, I have watched every one of John Wetzel’s college and pro games. At BC, Wetzel had to wait a couple of years behind the Colts’ 2011 1st round pick Anthony Castonzo. Thus, in 2011, Wetzel started 12 games at LT and then in 2012 he started 12 games at RT.

Wetzel played well at BC on two struggling teams. He went undrafted in 2013 and was signed as a UDFA by the Raiders. After spending some time on the Raiders’ and Cowboys’ practice squads, he was signed by the Cardinals in 2015.

In late October of 2016, when Jared Veldheer was lost for the season, Wetzel started the next 8 games at RT with D.J. Humphries switching to LT. Wetzel was an immediate asset in the running game, helping to spring David Johnson on some long runs. And he was outstanding at finishing blocks downfield on RB and WR screens. His pass protection numbers were impressive---he have up only 2 sacks for 13 yards and committed 0 holding penalties. Only 1 penalty all season (1 false start).

At that time, it looked like Wetzel had found his niche at RT, his most natural position. However, during the off-season the Cardinals decided to stick with Jared Veldheer with the intent of moving him to RT in order to keep 2105 1st round pick, D.J. Humphries at LT. Humphries in 2016 gave up 7 sacks and committed 5 penalties (1 holing, 3 false starts, one personal foul) in 13 games. But, Humphries started blossoming at LT before the end of the season.

Thus, heading into last year, John Wetzel remained the Cardinals’ Swiss Army utility G/T. In preparation for the first game at Detroit, Wetzel took many of the 1st team reps because Mike Iupati was ailing and was questionable to start. Iupati did make the start, but Humphries suffered a knee injury early in the game and Wetzel was rushed in to replace him.

Wetzel struggled in pass protection versus the Lions. He gave up a sack a handful of QB pressures in trying to keep Ziggy Ansah and Antony Zettel in check. It was an ugly 35-23 loss for the Cardinals.

Wetzel conceded after the Lions’ game that because he had taken the vast majority of snaps at LG all week, he hadn’t been able to prepare adequately for the Lions’ edge rushers.

A week later, Wetzel’s start at LT versus the Colts in Indianapolis, went extremely well, in fact so well that he earned the Cardinals’ 3rd highest PFF grade (83.2) for the game---a game the Cardinals came back to win 16-13 in OT.

The rest of Wetzel’s 11 starts last year at LT were up and down. He gave up 7 total sacks. However, Wetzel incurred only 1 penalty (a false start) and once again 0 holding penalties. Late in the season, Wetzel was the lone offensive lineman to turn in a good performance versus the New Orleans Saints. PFF wrote, “John Wetzel was the only member of the Cardinals’ offensive line to not allow multiple pressures, surrendering just one hurry on 44 pass-blocking snaps.”

Playing LT on an island snap after snap in Bruce Arians’ offense is quite a challenge.

While giving up 7 sacks in 11 games seems like a lot---All-Pro LT Andrew Whitworth gave up 6 sacks and incurred 3 holding penalties in 15 games last year for the Rams.

With a new head coach in Steve Wilks, a new OC in Mike McCoy and a new OL coach in Ray Brown, I am hoping that in the case of John Wetzel and 2018 3rd round pick Mason Cole that the coaches play Wetzel and Cole almost entirely at RT and C respectively---so that both can compete for the starting jobs at those positions. Have Evan Boehm be the swing G/C and Will Holden be the swing tackle.

Ray Brown helped to make a 2017 2nd team All-Pro out of RT Daryl Williams (the Panthers’ 4th round pick in 2015). Williams sat a couple years behind Michael Oher, whom Williams replaced late in the 2016 season due to injury.

With John Wetzel, Ray Brown has a similar athlete as Daryl Williams. Here is how their Combine numbers compared:

Daryl Williams: 6-5, 327, 35” arms, 9” hands, 5.34 40, 5.12 20-ss, 8.18 3 cone, 26” VJ, 9’7” BJ, 27 reps at 225.

John Wetzel: 6-7, 318, 34” arms, 10” hands, 5.46 40, 4.81 20-ss, 7.90 3 cone, 25” VJ, 8’9” BJ, 22 reps at 225.

In order to win the starting job, Wetzel is going to have to beat out free agent veteran Andre Smith who had 8 starts at G and RT for the Bengals last year and gave up 2 sacks and incurred 7 penalties (5 false starts).

I believe that John Wetzel has chance to win the job because, at this point in his career and in Smith’s, Wetzel is a stronger, more disciplined player. Smith has veteran savvy and could experience a renaissance in Arizona. Much will depend on what kind of playing shape Andre Smith is in and just how motivated he is to be a full-time starting RT again. If Smith doesn’t answer the bell, with John Wetzel, Will Holden, Vinston Painter and Korey Cunningham in the mix, the coaches may have some difficult roster decisions, particularly knowing that Smith was given $3.5M in guaranteed money ($2.6M signing bonus).

My hope is that the starting offensive line evolves as follows: LT---Humphries; LG---Iupati; C---Cole; RG---Pugh; RT---Wetzel.

In terms of the future, the Cardinals have picked up Humphries’ 5th year tender and will likely sign him to a long-term extension. Cole and Pugh are under contract for 4-5 years. Wetzel becomes an RFA in 2019 and if he fits the bill this year, he could be a candidate for a reasonable multi-year extension. That leaves Mike Iupati, whose 2019 contract is now voidable (if released he would count $1.7M against the 2019 cap). If Iupati has a good, healthy year, the Cardinals could try to work out a new 2-3 year deal with him. But, could the Cardinals be on the verge of building offensive line continuity for years to come? If Ray Brown has his way---the Cardinals offensive line will finally become one of the team’s yearly strengths.