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The Other Murray

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

One of the great stories of the Cardinals’ 2019 season was the surprisingly good play of RT Justin Murray.

Just a few days after Steve Keim traded 2nd year T Korey Cunningham to the Patriots for a 2020 6th round pick, the starting RT, Marcus Gilbert, suffered a season ending knee injury.

Whether it was Steve Keim, Sean Kugler, Brian Natkin or whomever was privy to the relatively unknown T Justin Murray—-claiming him off waivers from the Raiders was one of the most fortuitous moves the Cardinals made all season.

The Cardinals would have seen Murray in action during the pre-season as he played 24 snaps as the 2nd team RT for the Raiders in their win over the Cardinals. On 7 pass plays, Murray gave up 0 sacks, 0 QB hits and only one QB pressure.

But it may not have been just his pre-season performance in this game that caught the Cardinals’ eye.

As the Cardinals are relying more on analytics these days when considering personnel acquisitions—-it appears that someone was doing his homework on Justin Murray.

While Murray has bounced around from a number of teams’ practice squads (Broncos, Bucs, Saints, Bengals, Raiders)—-his pre-season grades the past three seasons have been commendable, especially in terms of his pass blocking efficiency: pass blocking grades of 72.9, 84.5 and 86.7 the past three pre-seasons.

Sure naysayers and pigskin scoffers, it’s only pre-season and Murray was blocking mostly versus 2nd and 3rd stringers—-but success has to start somewhere—-and a virtual no-name like Justin Murray needs some kind of a perfect storm in order to ever play a snap in a regular season NFL game.

But, every no-name player’s journey is a thing to behold, so let’s go back to where Justin Murray’s NFL journey began.

At Sycamore High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, Murray played football and competed on the track team. His most noteworthy accomplishment was setting the Greater Miami Conference record in the shot put at 59’06.5”.

As a senior offensive tackle in college, despite helping to lead the Cincinnati Bearcats to the 4th highest passing yards per game offense (373 yards per game) in Division 1A, and despite turning in a stellar pro day performance where he ran a 4.93 40 and posted a 30” vertical jump at 6-5, 306, Justin Murray went undrafted.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Interestingly, Murray’s partner on the right side of the Bearcats OL, All AAC RG Parker Ehinger, was drafted in the 4th round of the 2016 NFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Ehinger has bounced around some in the NFL, since then himself. He came close to making the Cardinals’ 53 man roster this past season and wound up being signed to the Baltimore Ravens’ practice squad in September and was promoted to their 53 man roster on November 30th.

With but a week to assimilate into the K-Raid offense (imagine that), Justin Murray started game 1 at RT versus the Lions. He struggled early on, giving up 1 sack and 6 QB pressures, but then he managed to settle down during the team’s furious comeback and wound up earning a 58.5 PFF grade.

At Baltimore a week later, both he and D.J. Humphries struggled blocking DE/OLB Matthew Judon and Murray suffered his worst game grade (41.1) of the season.

At this point the Cardinals decided instead to start Jordan Mills at RT, whom they had signed as a free agent on September 10th. Mills would start in Weeks 3 and 4 versus the Panthers and Seahawks—-but Mills struggled mightily, giving up 1 sack and 4 QB pressures in those games while scoring 38.1 and 50.5 grades—-and in both games Sean Kugler ran Justin Murray back in to sub for Mills.

In replacing Jordan Mills in week 3, Murray bounced back well, earning a 65.6 grade versus Carolina giving up 0 sacks and 0 QB pressures.

In week 4, as a sub for Mills again, his grade dropped to a 52.0 versus Seattle, although he did not give up a sack while giving up 2 QB pressures.

However, by Week 5, the Cardinals went back to starting Justin Murray at RT.

Murray’s play versus the Cardinals’ 3 game winning streak versus Cincinnati (a homecoming for him), Atlanta and New York (Jets) was steady and commendable, where he giave up 0 sacks only 2 QB pressures in three games, for grades of 67.9, 62.4 and 64.7 respectively.

The New Orleans game in Week 8 was a struggle (45.1), as Murray gave up a sack and 4 QB pressures.

Murray would miss the next two games due to a knee sprain—-and in that interim, Sean Kugler switched Justin Pugh to RT and filled in with Mason Cole at RG—-which was a temporary success during the close losses at home to the 49ers and on the road versus the Bucs.

Justin Murray was able to return with a bang in Week 11 at Palo Alto—-earning not only his highest grade of the season, but the highest grade for all RTs in the NFL at 74.2. Here is an article that highlight’s his All PFF Team of the Week achievement.

From that point on—-Justin Murray, during the final 6 weeks of the season was—-by far—-the Cardinals’ best and most consistent lineman. By comparison, look at D.J. Humphries’ and Murray’s game grades:

@ SF: DJH—-57.3; JM—-74.2

LAR: DJH—-59.1; JM—-67.6

PITT: DJH—-76.1; JM—-63.0

CLE: DJH—-56.9; JM—-71.0

@ SEA: DJH—-69.5; JM—-74.2

@ LAR: DJH: 68.6; JM—-65.0

Average grades Weeks 12-17: DJH—-63.9; JM—-69.1

In fact, Justin Murray’s 69.1 average grade over the past 6 weeks was the Cardinals’ best average on the offensive line. Humphries was next best at 63.9.

To put Justin Murray’s performance the last 6 weeks in greater perspective, here’s how his last 6 game grades stacked up against the RTs’ in the NFC West:

  1. 70.6—-Mike McGlinchey—-SF (1st Rd. pick in 2018 NFL Draft)
  2. 69.1—-Justin Murray—-ARI (UCFA in 2016)
  3. 59.2—-Germain Ifedi—-SEA (1st Rd. pick in 2016 NFL Draft)
  4. 56.4—-Rob Havenstein—-LAR (2nd Rd. pick in 2015 NFL Draft)

Imagine that—-over the last six weeks of the season the Cardinals got similar RT grades to those of the 49ers’ Mike McGlinchey—-all from Justin Murray, a journeyman waiver wire pick who was cut from 5 teams, this time from the Raiders.

Obviously, Sean Kugler and Brian Natkin deserve a ton of credit for helping to develop Murray during his first 14 games of NFL regular season action.

What’s astounding is how quickly some Cardinals’ fans and pundits want to ignore or dismiss Justin Murray’s 2019 performance and relegate him to the bench in 2020. Yet, many of the same fans and pundits want the Cardinals to lavish D.J. Humphries with a $15M a year contract or the $16.4M franchise tag.

There is nothing that helps a team’s salary cap better than good, quality starters who are earning less than $4-5M a year.

If Marcus Gilbert had graded out the last 6 weeks the way Justin Murray did, fans and pundits would be screaming out re-signing figures of $11-12M a season.

Yet, because Justin Murray is an exclusive rights free agent, if the Cardinals keep him as the starter at RT in 2020—-he will command a whopping salary of—-the NFL minimum.

The Cardinals have a very good thing going with Justin Murray—-so good, in fact, that Murray deserves a salary that is many times more than the minimum he made in 2019 ($570K) . If the Cardinals choose to reward him with a raise (which they don’t have to), Murray would still be a major bargain compared to Mike McGlinchey and Rob Havenstein who have cap hits of $5M (year 3 of rookie contract) and $7.8M respectively. Germain Ifedi’s contract with a $10M projected 2020 cap hit (no dead cap money) was terminated by the Seahawks.

The job that Kulger and Natkin are doing with Justin Murray could make Cardinals’ fans feel all the more confident in what they could do with a LT who can be signed for mega millions less than $15-16M.

Justin is the other Murray, people. He’s pretty dang good—-and he too, in effect, is on his rookie contract!

Get this—-over the last 6 games—-Justin Murray gave up a total of 1 sack and 8 QB pressures (1.3 a game)—-and incurred just 1 penalty. And in 3 of those games (versus the 49ers, Rams and Brown)s he gave up 0 sacks and 0 QB pressures.

Cleveland Browns v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images