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Cardinals’ New Swiss Army Knife?

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NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

In the early BA years—-the Cardinals’ Swiss Army knife was 4th round pick Earl Watford.

In the late BA, one SW years—-he was UCFA John Wetzel.

And now in 2019 in the first KK year—-could he actually be 2018 3rd Round draft pick Mason Cole?

One of the lone encouraging signs from last year’s dismal season was the fact that the Cardinals drafted C Mason Cole in the 3rd round and—-they actually trained and kept him at center!

When projected starter A.Q. Shipley tore his ACL and was lost for the season, Mason Cole was able to continue his extraordinary run of starting every game in his high school, college and now NFL career.

As it turned out Cole was the Cardinals’ only offensive lineman to start all 16 games.

That in itself warrants applause, and perhaps even a standing ovation.

Critics point to Mason Cole’s below average PFF grade (50.9) which was the 18th highest grade in the NFL for starting centers who made over 900 snaps. Just one slot behind the Rams’ veteran C John Sullivan.

However, it would be an injustice to Mason Cole, if one did not make mention of some of the mitigating factors that affected Cole’s overall grade.

For one, any center will tell you, their job is reliant on the chemistry of the OL, particularly with regard to the two guards. The lineup changes from week to week made such chemistry very difficult to establish and maintain.

The Cardinals had something like 19 different OL combinations last season.

Remember the center is the one who makes the blocking calls at the line of scrimmage and centers hope more than anything to have a familiar audience.

For two, the Cardinals ran such a conservative and predictable offense that opposing defenses were loading the box to stop RB David Johnson and to put immense pressure on rookie QB Josh Rosen.

To be fair, Mason Cole’s “A” gaps were about as heavily rushed as the revolving doors at New York City’s Grand Central Station during rush hour.

This just in—-no center in the NFL can protect both A gaps at once.

So much of this depends on the aforementioned chemistry with the guards because they have to know which A gap they are responsible for. Plus, they have to know how to work with the center to pick up and effectively block inside rushing twists and blitzes.

When as the center you are calling the coverages at the line of scrimmage, you have to hope that the guards can understand and process the calls quickly enough, especially in stadiums where the crowd noise is deafening.

After A.Q. Shipley was lost for the season last year, Steve Keim promptly signed him to a one year “good faith” 2019 contract, as Keim did when WR Jaron Brown went down with a season ending injury in 2016.

To Shipley’s credit, he is fully rehabbed, highly focused and playing 15-20 pounds lighter than normal.

Thus far, Kliff Kingsbury has made it clear that Shipley and Cole are both “starting caliber centers” who are neck and neck in the competition.

If A.Q. Shipley wins the job, and most pundits seem convinced at this point that he will, because he’s the veteran, this will not only mean the end off Mason Cole’s impressive starting streak, but it would also mean that, despite having drafted centers in 3 of the last 4 NFL drafts (using a 4th, a 3rd and a 6th), the Cardinals have still not as yet found a sure-fire present and long-term answer at the center position.

Ugh.

Now the Cardinals are doing to Cole what they didn’t do last year—-they are crowding his plate to the max by having him play all three positions on the line: tackle, guard and center.

Of course, the vexing irony is that the Cardinals’ Swiss Army OL of the past three years, John Wetzel (who played admirably in short and extended spot duty at LT, LG, RG and RT), was not afforded the same treatment as A.Q. Shipley when Wetzel went down with an injury last season.

Wetzel who was an RFA this season could have be re-signed for the mere $720K contract the Falcons gave him.

This past week Wetzel played RT in the Hall of Fame game next to the Falcons’ 1st round pick RG Chris Lindstrom, forming a right side of former Boston College Eagles.

What was very laudable about John Wetzel’s unsung play for the Cardinals was how he would bounce back from mistakes. In 2017, Wetzel was rushed into action in game one versus the Lions when LT D.J. Humphries was injured. Wetzel gave up 1.5 sacks at LT in that game loss at Detroit, but in all fairness, all his reps during the week has been at LG because Mike Iupati was questionable for the game.

In the very next game at Indianapolis, now having had all the reps at LT during practice, Wetzel scored the highest PFF grade (83.6) on the Cardinals’ offensive line during the team’s nail-biting 16-13 OT win versus the Colts.

This says a lot about John Wetzel’s character and ability.

Just as Earl Watford was pigeonholed as a Swiss Army utility OL and was never given the proper chance to be a starter, the same can be said about John Wetzel.

In fact, last year it looked apparent coming into the season and during the season that John Wetzel was a better, stronger option at RT than Andre Smith. for whom the Cardinals paid $4M.

Wetzel is gone—-now the Cardinals are scrambling to find his replacement—-and unfortunately it looks like the Cardinals are tabbing the #97 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft to man the utility role.

And if Cole is the new Swiss Army knife—-it certainly elicits the question of where Mason Cole belongs on the line, if he ever is going to be a starter again.

Boy the Cardinals really know how settle young OL into positions and build their confidence, don’t they?