The Cardinals’ OL is the most difficult unit to assess in terms of leadership.
To begin with, it is quite possible that 4 of the 5 players who are generally predicted to start this season (LT D.J. Humphries, LG Justin Pugh, C A.Q. Shipley and RT Marcus Gilbert) won’t be on the roster in 2020.
Humphries, Shipley and Gilbert are in contract years with two of them possibly on the verge of retirement—-and if Justin Pugh plays as uninspired as he did last year, the Cardinals, staring at Pugh’s projected $10.5M cap number in 2020, may decide to eat $6M in dead money in order to take him off the books.
Given the potential lame duck status of 4 of the 5 potential starters, it is difficult to know just how motivated and invested these players are.
Of the 4, RT Marcus Gilbert might be the most likely one to take the leadership reins, particularly if he is motivated to earn himself a 2-3 year contract extension. Gilbert is a gifted pass protector who has an impressive bank of playoff experience. Of all of the Cardinals offensive linemen, Gilbert is the most experienced and the most accomplished.
Next, one would have to point to A.Q. Shipley simply because of his enormous will and determination. Shipley is like a dog with a bone—-once he chomps down on it, you’re going to need a fire hose to get Shipley to let go if it.
The issue with Shipley, though, is whether he is a good fit physically for the K-Raid. Typically a spread offense like Kliff Kingsbury’s demands that the center be (a) a reliable snapper of the football; (b) a quick footed athlete who can perform all of the pulling and downfield blocking on counters and screens; and (c) a quick first-stepper with the arm length to be able to reach block on DTs or “A Gap” blitzing LBers, particularly when Kingsbury employs wider than normal splits.
In light of the job description at center, it would appear that Mason Cole and Lamont Gaillard are the more natural fits. Both Cole and Gaillard are highly competitive and durable.
If Cole or Gaillard beats out Shipley, it might be difficult to picture Shipley accepting a subordinate role. If so, a happy landing spot for him might be in reuniting with Bruce Arians and Harold Goodwin in Tampa Bay or hooking on with Jon Gruden in Oakland.
D.J. Humphries and Justin Pugh have a lot in common. They are frequently injured and they have a penchant for being goofy. Pairing them on the left side is either a stroke of genius or a disaster waiting to happen. Of course, it would all be moot if they start missing games again.
The frustrating part is that both Humphries and Pugh have enticing talent—-but neither one of them appear all that dedicated to excel. if there ever was a season to disprove that possible perception, this is the one.
With 4 of the 5 starters having potentially one foot out of the door, that leaves an enormous leadership opportunity for newly acquired RG J.R. Sweezy. Sweezy helped lead the Seahawks last year to the #1 rushing attack at an average of 160 yards per game.
Sweezy, a Pro Bowl alternate in 2018, finds himself in a similar situation of sorts given that the Cardinals now have a mobile QB and they have a potential 1,000 yard rusher in David Johnson.
The Cardinals’ new offensive line coach, Sean Kugler, has been saying all along that the Cardinals are going to run the ball more often than people think. As the OL coach on the Broncos last year, despite losing All- Pro center Matt Paradis to injury, Kugler helped the Broncos generate the #12 rushing attack in the NFL and got a Pro Bowl performance from UCFA RB Phillip Lindsay, who in a mere nine games before he got injured, rushed for 1,037 yards and 10 TDs averaging 5.4 yards a carry.
Sean Kugler was instrumental in pushing for the Cardinals to trade for RT Marcs Gilbert, to sign UFA Gs J.R. Sweezy and Max Garcia and to draft C Lamont Gaillard and T Joshua Miles.
Kugler also has a personal connection with Mason Cole because Kugler’s son, Patrick, was a linemate of Cole’s at Michigan. It appears that Patrick is now pursuing a coaching career of his own as he is now Jim Harbaugh’s graduate student offensive line coach.
Kugler is a no-nonsense kind of coach and thus he will be looking for leadership and chemistry across the board—-which is why there might be some surprises as to which players emerge as Kugler’s favorites.
One player to keep an eye on is 2nd year T Korey Cunningham who physically fits the K-Raid tackle profile to a tee and only gave up 2 sacks in 6 starts last year. An interior player who brings the kind of toughness and pop that Sean Kugler covets is 2nd year G Colby Gossett, who started 4 games for the Cardinals last season after being signed off the Vikings’ practice squad (2018 Vikings’ 6th Rounder).
At TE, the Cardinals now have a veteran leader in Charles Clay, assuming that he can quickly be removed from the PUP list. Clay is tailor made for the K-Raid, as he was a Swiss Army knife TE/FB/HB in his college spread offense at Houston. This year could be a renaissance for Clay.
Ricky Seals-Jones played as a freshman in Kingsbury’s offense at Texas A&M. So, he knows what to expect and thus could emerge this season as a leader.
The Cardinals added a solid combo receiver/blocker in UFA TE Maxx Williams. Williams brings red zone value, versatility and toughness.
Thus far, Kliff Kingsbury has been very impressed with 7th round pick TE Caleb Wilson. Kingsbury likes Wilson’s combination of speed and hands and is working with him to make him stronger.