The Cardinals’ starting offensive line was significantly better last season compared to 2018.
For the first time in forever, most of the unit remained healthy. D.J. Humphries, Justin Pugh, A.Q. Shipley, and J.R. Sweezy started all 16 regular season games. According to Pro Football Focus, they allowed a combined total of nine sacks. Better yet, the run game averaged a franchise-record of five yards per carry. Offensive line coach Sean Kugler deserves a lot of credit for the big improvements.
Much of their issues came from the right side of their offensive line. Marcus Gilbert was expected to be the starting right tackle, after the Cardinals acquired him from the Steelers via trade, but suffered a torn ACL before the start of the season.
The team had to rely on waiver acquisition Justin Murray for most of the year to fill the void and Jordan Mills, who started only two games before suffering a season-ending ACL tear.
The Cardinals had three impending free agents from the initial starting offensive line. They crossed off one of their biggest offseason priorities by re-signing left tackle D.J. Humphries to a three-year $45 million deal.
Although Humphries was one of the more penalized offensive tackles in 2019, he took a big step forward in his career allowing only two sacks and played all 16 regular season games for the first time in his five years in the NFL.
Contract negotiations with A.Q. Shipley began in November but there have not been any updates since then. Considering he turns 34 years old in May, it might be wise for the Cardinals to let him test free agency and look at younger players to upgrade the center position.
One candidate to replace him is former third-round pick Mason Cole, who started every game at center for the Cardinals in 2018. The 23-year old played both the left and right guard positions last season.
Lamont Gaillard, Cardinals’ 2019 sixth-round pick, was red-shirted his rookie year. He was a highly-regarded player coming out of Georgia, being a three-year starter and a team captain for the Bulldogs. He has experience playing center and right guard. Both Cole and Gaillard should compete for the starting job in the upcoming season.
If the Cardinals want to upgrade the center position in free agency, one player on top of their list should be Broncos’ Connor McGovern. In 1013 snaps, he allowed only one sack and was not penalized in 2019. He earned a 71.9 Pro Football Focus grade. He turns 27 in April and was coached by Sean Kugler in 2018.
As for the right tackle position, Gilbert will be an unrestricted free agent in March but should be an inexpensive player to bring back. Justin Murray will return as an exclusive rights free agent and is expected to battle for the starting job. His positional flexibility on the offensive line makes him one of the more valuable players on the team. He struggled early in the year but made major improvements with every game. He even made PFF’s week 11 team of the week, allowing zero pressures on 42 pass-blocking snaps against a tough 49ers pass rush.
I do not expect the team to sign Packers’ Bryan Bulaga or Titans’ Jack Conklin but anything is possible.
Many mock drafts have the Cardinals taking Iowa OT Tristan Wirfs with their first-round pick. One draft prospect I have been very intrigued and impressed with is TCU OT Lucas Niang. The projected day two pick suffered a season-ending hip injury in October but was one of the best offensive tackles in college football the last two years. He allowed zero sacks in 2018 and handled potential top-3 draft pick Chase Young really well this year.
The Cardinals could improve their depth by pursuing free agents like former Texas Tech OT Le’Raven Clark or OG Xavier Su’a-filo. Seventh-round pick Josh Miles and Brett Toth will have to compete for a roster spot. Sam Jones signed with the team on a futures deal. Max Garcia, a likely player to be re-signed, and Jordan Mills are scheduled to be free agents in March.