When Steve Keim was elevated to general manager of the Arizona Cardinals in the 2013 offseason he set out a singular goal... Fix the offensive line.
In the seventh offseason of his reign he’ll be setting out with the same goal he started with in 2013... Fix the offensive line.
For seven offseasons Keim has been looking for the right combination. Combination, that’s the key to this entire thing.
Steve Keim has had two big issues with his work over the last six seasons and will again heading into his seventh.
- Health: Only one offensive line unit the Arizona Cardinals started the season with has ended the season.
- Continuity: Keim has changed the starters along the offensive line every offseason, at least at two positions, in each of his seven seasons.
Obviously two goes into one, but more over Keim has never done a good enough job of finding the right puzzle pieces to fit together.
In 2013, Keim inherited a mess (Left to right starters)
Levi Brown, Daryn Colledge, Lyle Sendlein, Paul Fanaika, Eric Winston
Those were the starters in game one.
Game 16 starters: Bradley Sowell, Colledge, Sendlein, Fanaika, Winston
Then Keim set off to fix the offensive line in the 2014 offseason. Instead of letting the group continue to grow together, they made a huge overhaul. Probably because they were PFF’s worst graded offensive line in the NFL.
2014 Game one starters: Jared Veldheer, Ted Larsen, Sendlein, Fanaika, Bobby Massie
The Cardinals changed out 60% of their starting offensive line.
Game 16: Jared Veldheer, Ted Larsen, Sendlein, Fanaika, Bobby Massie
While this unit was not great, you’d think the idea of continuity would be strong, they moved up PFF rankings from 32 to 24 in 2014.
2015 Game one starters: Veldheer, Larsen, Sendlein, Cooper, Watford
40% of the line changed, Watford stood in for the suspended Massie while Cooper finally saw the field. Of course the only reason Larsen was starting was that highly prized free agent signing Mike Iupati was sidelined with a knee injury the first two games. The result was a huge change up by the NFC Championship Game.
2015 NFC Championship Game Starters: Veldheer, Iupati, Sendlein, Larsen, Massie
By the end of the season, the Cardinals had changed 60% of their offensive line from the start of the season and the Cardinals had finally cracked the top 20 offensive lines in the NFL, coming in at 17th. Keim’s work had started to show on the field, but it also was the highest the team would ever get.
No, the problem became the team had drafted D.J. Humphries in the 2015 NFL Draft, they had jettisoned former first round pick Jonathan Cooper from the roster and couldn’t conceive of two offensive linemen picked early not getting any run. So, despite the steady rise in rankings, they decided that wholesale changes would be needed.
The Cardinals, a Super Bowl favorite, had completely turned over their offensive line again, with 60% new starters in 2016:
Game one starters: Veldheer, Iupati, A.Q. Shipley, Evan Mathis, D.J. Humphries
Game 16 starters: John Wetzel, Iupati, Shipley, Evan Boehm, Earl Watford
Another year of high turnover. Another year where injuries likely stunted the growth of the unit, but also where change really wasn’t necessary.
Sitting Humprhies to start 2016 would have raised the fans ire, but it also would have given the Cardinals a plug in at left tackle when Veldheer went down. Instead of going and getting another one-year, often injured player in Evan Mathis, a great player when healthy, they could have hung onto Ted Larsen. The Cardinals could have come into 2016 with one move along the offensive line, Shipley replacing Sendlein. Instead, they changed out 60% again, then had to change out 60% during the season. They fell all the way down to 26th in the PFF rankings.
Yet, bad decisions beget more bad decision.
2017 game one starters: Humphries, Iupati, Shipley, Boehm, Veldheer
Names we all know, changed and moved. They flopped the tackles and we all know how that ended up.
By the end of the season only two men remained.
2017 game 16 starters: Will Holden, Alex Boone, Shipley, Boehm, Wetzel
That unit finished up as the 31st ranked in the NFL.
2018 game one starters: Humphries, Iupati, Mason Cole, Justin Pugh, Andre Smith
Another 60% turnover from the previous game one of the season.
By the end of the season, only Cole was standing.
Game 16 starters: Will Holden, Colby Gossett, Cole, Oday Aboushi, Joe Barksdale
Shocking to know the Cardinals had the worst offensive line in the NFL.
Now, as the Cardinals continue into the offseason and free agency, the Cardinals will have a 40% change from the names of the 2018 starters to the 2019 starters.
While Pugh will be there, he likely will be playing at left guard, so the left guard, right guard, J.R. Sweezy and right tackle, Marcus Gilbert, will all be new.
The concern becomes not only of health, only Sweezy and Cole have played in all 16 games since 2015, but what if they start to get it right?
Will Keim be patient enough to see growth and allow it to continue? If this group makes a jump like 2014, from worst to in the mid to low 20’s, would he bring everyone back?
Will he be willing to shell out big dollars to Humphries if he puts it all together in 2019? Will he be willing to bring back a 32 year old Marcus Gilbert on a multi year deal?
Or, will we be looking at 2-3 new starters again in 2020?
Keim can be forgiven for not seeing injuries coming, a lot of those are unfortunate. What he can’t be forgiven for is the revolving door he has created.
Offensive line play is as much about talent as it is about continuity. They are a unit. You need five guys that know and trust each other in every aspect of the game. They have to move as one and grow as one.
If you look at the offensive line as a garden, Keim has never let his plants take root and grow. He continues to yank them up and put new ones down each and every yaer. Each time the soil is disturbed, the new plants struggle to take root and then it is all to cyclical.
Growing an offensive line takes time, it takes patience and it takes a deft hand.
Will Keim find that now, or will we be tilling up the land again in 2020?