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Will Cardinals’ Offensive Line Improve?

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Arizona Cardinals Introduce Kyler Murray Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

On ESPN’s NFL Live this past week, the BOLD PREDICTION the panel agreed upon for the 2019 Arizona Cardinals was: “1stPick in 2020 NFL Draft.”

To a person, the ESPN crew cited the Cardinals’ continued offensive line woes as the main reason.

Moments later, their BOLD PREDICTION for the San Francisco 49ers was: “10-11 WINS and a wild card berth”.

As awful as the Cardinals were last year, they beat the 49ers twice---albeit without the injured Jimmy Garoppolo at QB. But, hey, the Cardinals were starting a rookie in Josh Rosen and running a vanilla offense. And they still swept the 49ers.

Ah, perceptions, perceptions.

Obviously, despite the Cardinals adding RT Marcus Gilbert (trade with Steelers), LG J.R. Sweezy (UFA Seahawks), G/C Max Garcia (UFA Broncos), C Lamont Gaillard (Round 6, Georgia) and T Joshua Miles (Round 7 Morgan St.) to compliment LT D.J. Humphries, C Mason Cole, C A.Q. Shipley, RG Justin Pugh and swing T Korey Cunningham, the ESPN crew feels that the Cardinals have not done much to improve the quality of their offensive line.

The ESPN crew feels that the Cardinals would have better off using their Day 2 picks on offensive lineman, rather than on CB Byron Murphy, WR Andy Isabella and DE Zach Allen. The top rated offensive linemen the Cardinals could have taken at #33, #62 and #65 respectively were T Jawaan Taylor (Florida, #35 Jaguars or T/G Cody Ford (Oklahoma, #38 Bills)---and G Michael Deiter (Wisconsin, #78 Dolphins) or G Nate Davis (Charlotte, #82 Titans) or G Connor McGovern (Penn St., #90, Cowboys).

However, when one considers the Cardinals’ new K Raid style of offense, one could argue that not only did the Cardinals do better by taking the top cover CB in the draft in CB Byron Murphy, the most productive, highest rated (per PFF) WR Andy Isabella and one of the most dynamic 34 DEs in Zach Allen, all of the offensive linemen who were taken on Day 2 (except C Erik McCoy, #48 Saints) were not ideal Air Raid fits or immediate candidates to start year one. Interestingly, had the Cardinals been able to pick up the #48 pick from the Dolphins, McCoy might have been their pick at that spot. But, the Dolphins traded back to #62, where the Cardinals took WR Andy Isabella---who might help the Cardinals offensive line more than people realize. More on that later.

Jawaan Taylor was the 5th OT taken in this draft because some teams had a red flag on him for potential knee issues and he struggled against the top competition in 2018, grading 46.6 vs. Tennessee, 52.6 vs. Michigan and 62.6 vs. Georgia. Taylor is a mauler in the running game and can handle bull rushers, but struggles with speed rushers at RT.

Cody Ford, like Taylor, is a mauler in the running game. But, many scouts believe that he lacks the agility and athleticism to hold up in pass protection at RT in the NFL, which is why many teams have projected him to return to G where he played in 2017.

Dieter and McGovern are run maulers who would have had to sit behind Sweezy and Pugh for a year or two---and the Cardinals already have two young developmental prospects in Colby Gossett and Will House. Nate Davis is going to convert from tackle to guard in the NFL, which may take a little time, but he has the kind of feet that are enticing.

Cardinals’ OL Depth Chart 2019:

Projected Staters:

LT D.J. Humphries---68.8 (9 games)---coming off IR (knee)---best year 2016 68.3 (13 games)

LG J.R. Sweezy---45.7 (16 games)---helped Seahawks become #1 rushing offense in 2018---best year 2014 73.3 (19 games, plus 77.3 in Super Bowl vs. Pats)

C Mason Cole---50.9 (16 games)---was named to The Sporting News All-Rookie1st team---lack of G continuity always hurts a C’s grade.

RG Justin Pugh---50.7 (7 games)---coming off IR (knee)---best year 2015 83.1 (14 games)

RT Marcus Gilbert---68.5 (5 games)---coming off IR (knee)---best year 2016 78.6 (16 games)

Projected 2nd Unit:

LT Korey Cunningham---60.4 (6 starts)---coming off IR (foot)---showed promise as athletic pass protector, run blocker

LG Max Garcia---50.5 (9 games, 4 starts)---coming off IR (knee)---best year 2016 72.2 (16 games)

C A.Q. Shipley---coming off IR (knee)---best year 2016 71.9 (16 games)

RG Colby Gossett---46.0 (5 games, 4 starts)---best game 77.6 vs. Lions, Week 14

RT Will Holden---45.7 (4 starts)---best game 64.2 vs. Rams Week 16

Projected 3rd Unit:

LT Joshua Miles---ideal physical attributes---likely needs to beat out Will Holden to make the 53 man roster

LG Jeremy Vujnovich ---48.2 (5 games, 2 starts)---coming off IR (hamstring)---best game 70.0 vs. Ravens in 2017

C Lamont Gaillard---rated #1 run blocking C (91.3%) and #2 pass blocking C (98.3%) in 2019 NFL Draft---sprung RBs Nick Chubb, Sony Michel in 2017 while protecting QB Jake Fromm in 2017 and 2108.

RG Will House---small school PS squad player in 2018---6-3, 318 G who also played some center at Southern Nazarene

RT Justin Evans---PS squad signee, 6-5, 310 athletic T/G from South Carolina St.

Other hopefuls: T Tariq Cole (Rutgers), T Zach Golditch (Colorado St.), T William Sweet (North Carolina), T Andrew Lauderdale (New Hampshire), G Rees Odhiambo (Boise St.), C Coleman Shelton (Washington)

Notes:

* On 1st and 2nd units, only Mason Cole, J.R. Sweezy, Colby Gossett and Will Holden are not coming off IR.

* Of the veteran starters Humphries, Sweezy, Pugh and Gilbert, all 4 of them have had above average pff grade years, and so have Shipley and Garcia. The talent and capability is there --now it needs to be galvanized and molded into a cohesive, combative unit.

Reasons for possible and perhaps even impressive improvement:

* Kliff Kingsbury’s K Raid---all plays are repped in practice over and over versus different defensive looks

* In the spread the ball often comes out quickly

* In the spread, defenses rarely stack the box, thus the numbers often favor running plays

* The addition of playmakers who can gain leverage or separation more quickly allows for quicker passes---this is why adding playmakers in this draft (Andy Isabella, Hakeem Butler, KeeSean Johnson, Caleb Wilson) to Larry Fitzgerald, Christian Kirk and David Johnson helps the offensive line because of mismatches and quicker leverage and/or separation

* The up-tempo offense forces defenses to keep its personnel on the field and it dictates the defense---Cardinals will see a lot of nickel, Cover 2 zones and 5 man unders

* The up-tempo offense tends to tire defenses out and wear them down

The impact of a mobile QB:

* Forces controlled 3 and 4 man pass rushes

* Forces more zone coverages

* Forces the defense to take a man out of pass coverage to be a QB spy

* Puts pressure on defenses to defend RPOs (run, pass options), plus bootlegs, waggles, QB and RB draws, jet sweeps, misdirection plays

* Changes the defense’s normal weekly preparation

* Forces defenses to play zone coverage in goal-line defense (to be in a position to stop the QB run)

* Kingsbury coaches the clock in his quarterbacks’ heads---each play his QBs know when to escape pressure, often if pass option #1 is taken away and #2 is take away that’s when Kingsbury instructs his QBs to escape, extend and create.

The Seahawks’ Model:

* The Seahawks were #1 in the NFL in rushing last year at 160.0 yards per game. The Cardinals were 32nd at 83.9.

* Fascinating stat: Seahawks had the PFF top rushing grade in NFL at 83.4, yet their run blocking grade was 56.3. Wha??? The Cardinals’ run blocking grade was nearly the same at 55.8. How and why could this be??? The answer---the Russell Wilson factor. Adding his rushes to his RBs’ yards (numerous hard runs and broken tackles) makes the rushing game all the more prolific, but Wilson’s runs often come off of busted plays.

* Having a mobile QB could help the Cardinals be more competitive with the Rams---check out the Seahawks/Rams stats last year:

* 10/7/18: Rams 33 @ Seahawks 31---Chris Carson 19/116/6.1---Mike Davis 12/68/5.7/1 TD---Russell Wilson 13/21/198/3-0 TD/int.

* 11/11/18: @ Rams 36 Seahawks 31---Russell Wilson 17/26/176/3-0 TD/int, 9/92/10.2 rush---Rashaad Penny 12/108/9.0/1 TD---Mike Davis 11/58/5.3

Obviously, it may take a little time for QB Kyler Murray to get his A game going and for the offensive line to develop their chemistry, but the pressure that Murray can put on defenses while operating within a more offensive line friendly system, gives the Cardinals a strategic edge they have never had previously, and with that edge, comes a stronger chance for success.