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Defending Keim’s Offensive Line Decisions

Seattle Seahawks v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

In recent days there has been an on-going and heated debate amongst Cardinals fans as to Steve Keim’s efforts to build a respectable offensive line. I wrote an article a couple of days ago in which I offered several reasons why I believe the Cardinals’ offensive line will be much improved this year. For many of the readers, my points were readily dismissed---and discarded by one ROTB member as pure “fluff.”

OK---allow me to take this argument step further.

First of all, let’s examine the shape of the offensive line before free agency and after the first two months of free agency.

LT D.J. Humphries

Last year at this time, I wrote that it was a mistake for Steve Keim to pick up LT D.J. Humphries’ 5th year option at $9.625M. The obvious reason was the number of games Humphries has missed due to injuries.

Now---in defense of Steve Keim---the 5th year option decisions which have to be made a year in advance are very challenging decisions, especially in the case of a talented, but oft-injured young player in D.J. Humphries.

What Steve Keim likely did when he decided to pick up Humphries’ option is gauge the 2019 LT market in free agency. And guess what? It appears Keim did not see a strong 2019 LT market.

A year ago, Keim would not have known that Trent Brown would emerge as the top LT available in free agency.

Even if Trent Brown was a FA target, would you, if you were Steve Keim, have awarded Brown with a 4 year, $66M contract with $36.3M guaranteed?

Can anyone look us all in the eye and say yes to that move?

I certainly can’t. I can’t even come close.

And the irony is---Trent Brown is going to play RT for the Raiders.

The only other LT signed to a contract this off-season was Matt Kalil, whom the Texans signed for 1 year at $7.5M with $2.3M guaranteed. Guess what? Matt Kalil is 30 years old and he did not play a single down last season due to injury.

The verdict for picking up D.J. Humphries’ 2019 5th year option: Good Move by Keim

LG Mike iupati

Clearly, it was time to move on from the oft-injured Iupati. The fact is, Keim stayed with him too long. But Keim did get Iupati to take a pay cut last year, which made keeping him for 2018 a little more tenable.

The verdict for releasing Mike iupati: Good Move By Keim

LG J.R. Sweezy

Here are the top guard signings in free agency---is there a signing here that you would have preferred over Sweezy’s (2/$9M/$3M guaranteed)? That’s assuming that you can outbid the competition.

Rodger Saffold, 30, 4/$44M/$22.5M guaranteed (Titans) 2018 PFF grade: 72.8

Billy Turner, 27, 4/$28M/$9M (Packers) 2018 PFF grade: 62.8 (mostly as a reserve with Broncos)

Nick Easton, 27, 4/$22.5M/$4M (played in 0 games in 2018---Saints)

James Carpenter, 30, 4/$21M/$8.3M (Falcons) 2018 PFF grade: 56.3

Jamon Brown, 26, 3/$18M/$12.7M (Falcons) 2018 PFF grade: 51.7

John Miller, 26, 3/$16.5M/$7.5M (Bengals) 2018 PFF grade: 64.3

Josh Kline, 29, 3/$15.5M/$7.3M (Vikings) 2018 PFF grade: 58.0

A.J. Cann, 27, 3/$15M/$6M (Jaguars) 2018 PFF grade: 60.6

The prize signing here is Saffold, but the dilemma with Saffold was giving him 4 years at $11M a year with $22.5M guaranteed. Many of us were hoping the Cardinals would steal Saffold from the Rams---but, at this price?

Interestingly---there were only two free agent offensive linemen this year who got a whiff of the 2019 Pro Bowl as alternates. Saffold was one---and J.R. Sweezy was the other. As good and improved as the Seahawks’ offensive line was last year, Sweezy was considered by the fans, players and coaches as the best player on the unit. That says something.

Don’t forget too that Sean Kugler had a strong hand in picking out Sweezy. Sweezy fits Kugler’s physical style.

The verdict on signing J.R. Sweezy at 2/$9M/$3M in light of the FA guard market: Good Move By Keim

C Mason Cole

2018 3rd round rookie Mason Cole was only offensive lineman to play 16 games. That fact in itself deserves a gold star.

Whenever a center has to adapt to new players on the offensive line, especially to new guards, it creates a tremendous challenge for the center with regard to chemistry and communication. A center’s success is predicated on pre-snap communication (barking out coverages or blocking schemes) and the right kind of sync in picking up twists, blitzes and x-stunts.

Cole did an admirable job under the circumstances---and with a whole year of starting under his belt, he should be able to take a big step forward in year two.

The main question about him right now is if he can be a consistently good snapper in the K-Raid shotgun. Cole’s shotgun snaps were a little erratic last year.

Cole has ties to new OLC Sean Kugler, as Cole played alongside of Kugler’s son at Michigan. Kugler has been lauding Cole’s versatility as a player who can have success at multiple positions along the line.

The verdict for taking Mason Cole in the 3rd round in 2018: Good Move By Keim.

RG Justin Pugh

Pugh was Keim’s splash OL signing last year. Many fans rightfully questioned the 5 year $44.775M contract with $15.75M guaranteed for a player coming off the IR due to a back injury.

To be honest, I liked the move at the time because I believe Pugh is an above average talent at guard. With only $15.75M guaranteed, the Cardinals can get out of that deal pretty easily in 2020 if need be.

2018 was a disappointment for Pugh. But---to be honest---some of the blame for Pugh’s 50.8 PFF grade belongs to the Cardinals’ offensive coaches for their poor play calling and designs. Being consistently outnumbered in the box is not going to help any offensive lineman’s PFF grade, especially when the coaches as you to run the ball straight into the line over and over.

The best stat is that in 7 games last season Pugh only gave up 1 sack.

The most disappointing aspect of Pugh’s season was landing on the IR again after playing in only 7 games, missing a couple of games early on due to a hand injury and then going on the IR in November with an MCL (knee) injury.

This season is critical for Justin Pugh and the Cardinals. They need Pugh, not only to warrant the contract he signed, but to provide strong leadership to the group.

The verdict for signing Justin Pugh in 2018 to a 5/$44.775M/$15.75M: Questionable Move By Keim.

RT Marcus Gilbert

While the LT market in FA was very thin this year, the RT market was a little more robust. Here are the top signings:

Trent Brown, 26, 4/$66M/36.3Mg (Raiders) 2018 PFF grade: 71.0

Ja’Wuan James, 27, 4/$$51M/$32Mg (Broncos) 2018 PFF grade: 70.8

Bobby Hart, 25, 3/$16.2M/$5.5Mg (Bengals) 2018 PFF grade: 56.2

Ty Nsekhe, 33, 2/$10M/$5.5Mg (Bills) 2018 PFF grade: 67.8

The big question here is would you have tried to outbid the Broncos for Ja’Wuan James?

Over the past 5 years, Ja’Wuan James has given up 23 sacks, 99 QB hurries and an additional 25 QB hits.

Over the past 5 years, Marcus Gilbert has give up 13 sacks, 103 QB hurries and an additional 11 QB hits.

Marcus Gilbert played in 6 games in 2018 (PFF grade: 68.5) before heading to the IR with a knee injury.

The verdict for trading for RT Marcus Gilbert, 31, at $4.915M in 2019: Good Move By Keim

The Depth:

T Korey Cunningham (2018 7th round pick)---6 starts, gave up 2 sacks, 2 QB hits and 14 QB hurries (60.8 PFF)

Verdict: Good Move by Keim as Cunningham could be a 2020 starter at LT or RT.

G Colby Gossett (2018 6th round pick from Vikings’ PS)---started 5 games at LG, gave up 5 sacks (2 to Aaron Donald), 1 QB hit and 8 QB hurries (46.0 pff).

Verdict: Good Move By Keim as developmental young depth player.

C A.Q. Shipley (re-signed to 1 year deal at $1.37M, $379Kg)---coming off ACL injury and 0 games in 2018 (61.3 PFF grade in 2017).

Verdict: Good Move By Keim and low risk high reward veteran.

G/C Max Garcia (UFA signed to 1 year deal at $1.78M, $400Kg)---coming off knee injury, started 4 games for Sean Kugler with the Broncos last year, gave up 1 sack, 1 QB hit and 7 QB hurries (50.5 PFF).

Verdict: Good Move By Keim as low risk high reward versatile veteran with starting experience at G and C.

T Will Holden (2017 5th round pick reacquired in 2018)---started 3 games, played in 4, gave up 2 sacks, 0 QB hits and 6 QB hurries (45.7 PFF).

Verdict: Good Move by Keim in 2018 (but Questionable that Keim did not re-sign John Wetzel for 2019)

C Lamont Gaillard (2019 6th round pick from Georgia)---2018 1st Team All-SEC C over Erik McCoy---plays with high energy, pop and combativeness.

Verdict: Good Move By Keim to add a high value pick like Gaillard in 6th round.

T Jordan Miles (2019 7th round pick from Morgan St.)---turned some heads at the East West Shrine game with size, arm length and feet.

Verdict: Good Move By Keim to add such a physically gifted player late in round 7 as a developmental project.

What Keim Hopes to Learn in 2019:

* Is D.J. Humphries the future at LT? If not, is Korey Cunningham?

* Is J.R. Sweezy the long-term answer at LG?

* Is Mason Cole the future at C? if not, is Lamont Gaillard?

* Is Justin Pugh the long-term future at RG? if not, is Mason Cole?

* Is Marcus Gilbert worth re-signing to a 2-3 year deal? Can Cunningham or Jordan Miles be the future at RT?

2019 NFL Draft Strategy:

Steve Keim decided to take the highest rated players on the Cardinals’ board and the chances look good that Murray, Murphy, Isabella, Allen, Butler, Thompson, Johnson and Dogbe will garner immediate playing time.

Keim wants to see how the offensive line develops under Kliff Kingsbury and Sean Kugler---plus Keim can add to the group by having first dibs on the waiver wire.

Make Your Case:

If you still believe Keim is a fool who has no clue---tell us your specific plan as to what you would have done differently. Remember that hindsight is 20/20. You have a lot of options at your fingertips. Give us your plan, man.