As all Cardinals’ fans know, the Cardinals have been doing their due diligence in scouting the 2020 draft class, most heavily at tackle and guard.
While most of the media focus on the Cardinals has been at upgrading the RT position, with Tristan Wirfs (Iowa) and Jedrick Wills (Alabama) receiving the most attention, it would appear, at least to me, that the two spots on the Cardinals’ OL that have the biggest question marks are at center and right guard.
When we go back and look at the Cardinals offensive line performance over the last 6 games, here were the averages of their game grades, per PFF:
RT Justin Murray—-69.1
LT D.J. Humphries—-63.9
LG Justin Pugh—-63.3
C A. Q. Shipley—-60.1
RG J.R. Sweezy—-55.4
As we know, the Cardinals have stressed keeping as much continuity on the OL as possible by re-signing LT D.J. Humphries to a 3 year $45M deal, re-signing RT Justin Murray to his ERFA tender, re-signing RT Marcus Gilbert to a deal worth up to $3.5M (but only $150K guaranteed), re-signing G/C Max Garcia and electing to keep RG J.R. Sweezy for the 2nd year of his two year deal which carries a 2020 cap hit of $6.5M (they could have retrieved $4M of that figure if they has released Sweezy before the start of the new year—-which shows the Cardinals’ confidence in their decision to keep him).
While J.R. Sweezy was a little penalty prone at times, he brought some much needed toughness, durability and bounce to the OL. The Cardinals are counting on him to be even stronger and more productive this season now that Sweezy is in full command of the offense.
Thus far, the Cardinals have not re-signed 2019 starting center and captain A.Q. Shipley. Some in the Arizona media have been campaigning for the Cardinals to bring Shipley back, which thereby would keep the entire 2019 OL intact.
While Shipley did a commendable job of the leading the OL and performing well in pass protection, his overall analytical grade (PFF) was the lowest on the unit:
Pugh—-66.8 (2 penalties)
Humphries—-64.5 (13 penalties)
Murray—-62.9 (3 penalties)
Sweezy—-61.6 (7 penalties)
Shipley—-57.6 (4 penalties)
Having not brought A.Q. Shipley back as of yet, neither Steve Keim, nor the Cardinals coaches have indicated what their plan is at center.
It is assumed by many that the plan is to insert Mason Cole at center, which was the very reason why the Cardinals drafted him in the 3rd round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Cole has a year of starting experience under his belt, having started all 16 games as a rookie.
It’s interesting to look at Mason Cole’s 2018 PFF grades at center:
Pass blocking: 41.9
Run blocking: 58.0
Obviously, the poor pass blocking grade is a concern—-however, to be fair, that grade has to take into consideration that he was a rookie playing for 2 OCs and 2 QBs, the seconds of which were rookies themselves, plus the alarming fact that Cole was the only OL to play all 16 games and he had to hold things together in the middle while playing with 10 different line combinations.
The encouraging thing is that while subbing in as a two game starter at LG in 2019, Cole improved his pass blocking grade to a respectable 63.3. Plus, his 59.1 run blocking grade (albeit for 2 games) was the highest of all the Cardinals’ OL.
But—-because his numbers were encouraging at guard—-could it be that the Cardinals coaches want Cole to challenge J.R. Sweezy for the RG spot in the lineup, while turning to 2nd year center and 2019 6th Round pick Lamont Gaillard (pictured at the top of the article)?
Interestingly, both of PFF’s All Pro centers, Jason Kelce (Eagles) and Ryan Jensen (Bucs) were 6th round picks.
Gaillard was an All SEC center at Georgia who helped pave the way for three 1,000 yard rushers in Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and D’Andre Swift and a strong passing attack under QB Jake Fromm.
In his two full years at center, Georgia had a record of 24-5 and won the 2017 Rose Bowl over Baker Mayfield and the Oklahoma Sooners 54-48 and then came oh so close to winning the 2017 national championship over Alabama, losing 26-23 by virtue of the 4th quarter heroics of Tua Tagovailoa.
With regard to the Cardinals’ interest in the OL of this year’s draft, they have been linked to:
T Tristan Wirfs (iowa)
T Andrew Thomas (Georgia)
T Mekhi Becton (Louisville)
T Jedrick Wills (Alabama)
T Ezra Cleveland (Boise St.)
T Josh Jones (Houston)
T Jack Driscoll (Auburn)
G Kevin Dotson (Louisiana-Lafayette)
G/T Robert Hunt (Louisiana-Lafayette)
G Damien Lewis (LSU)
But, in terms of reported interviews, they are not linked to any of the centers in this year’s draft—-which doesn’t mean they absolutely won’t take another center (that would be 4 centers in the last 5 drafts)—-but—-if the Cardinals aren’t looking to draft a center this year, it could be that they are turning the position over to Cole or Gaillard.
If the Cardinals don’t draft any OL this year—-if Marcus Gilbert stays healthy—-the Cardinals’ 8 OL on game days (now mandatory per the new CBA) would be: Humphries, Pugh, Cole, Sweezy, Gilbert, Murray, Galliard and Garcia. That’s pretty dang solid, which is why this article form Arizona Sports came out yesterday:
One of the most significant points this article makes is that according to PFF 23 of Kyler Murray’s 48 sacks were on him and that in his second year he should be able to cut that number down significantly.
The odds are that any OL the Cardinals take in this draft will have a very difficult time competing for a starting job because of what is likely to be such and abbreviated off-season. Whether that affects the Cardinals’ decision in the 1st round, who knows?
But, to be clear, adding Jedrick Wills or Tristan Wirfs in the 1st round would be very good value.
If the Cardinals trade down in Round 1, promising young developmental tackles such as Josh Jones or Ezra Cleveland (both of whom the Cardinals have been Face Timing recently) would certainly be in play, as might Lamont Gaiilard former Bulldog teammate Andrew Thomas who appears to be sliding a little in a few of the more recent mock drafts.
If the Cardinals do not take a tackle in Round 1, the tackle they likely would be most apt to take is Jack Driscoll (Auburn) who has two close ties to the Cardinals in that he played with Zach Allen in New Canaan CT in high school and he started out at UMass with Andy Isabella and then passing game coordinator, Cardinals’ assistant WR coach, Spencer Whipple.
And with one of the two 4th round picks, the Cardinals might make a move to snag one of their top rated guards in Kevin Dotson, Robert Hunt or Damien Lewis. And, seeing as Sean Kugler has all the intel he needs on the Michigan lineman, there are three Wolverines potentially in play here in the 4th or 6th round with Ben Bredeson (6-5 315), Jon Runyan (6-4 306) and Michael Onwenu (6-3 334).
Plus, before we go, let’s take a quick gander at the 2021 free agent guards and tackles:
T: Ronnie Stanley (2019 1st team All Pro LT BAL), Garett Bolles (DEN), David Bakhtiari (2018 1st team All Pro GB), Ryan Ramczyk 2019 1st team All Pro RT NO), Trent Williams (WAS), Laremy Tunsil (HOU), Taylor Decker (DET).
G: Jon Feliciano (BUF), Lane Taylor (GB), Forrest Lamp (LAC), Senio Kelemete (HOU), Pat Elflein (MIN), Larry Warford (NO).
The 2021 NFL Draft is absolutely loaded at tackle with 8 prospects projected as 1st round picks: Penei Sewell (2019 Outland Trophy winner—-Oregon), Sam Cosmi (Texas), Walker Little (Stanford), Jalen Mayfield (Michigan), Cade Mays (Tennessee). Trey Smith (T/G Tennessee), Alex Underwood (Alabama) and Liam Eichelberg (Notre Dame).
Having looked at the short and long term view, are you all in favor of drafting a tackle in Round 1?
With those free agent possibilities and the loaded 2021 draft class at tackle, I would like to see the Cardinals wait to make a big move at tackle—-when they have a significant amount of cap space next year—-and when they have a better understanding of just how good Justin Murray is.
Justin Murray continues to grade as the best OL as he did the last 6 weeks?
But, like many of you I am very impressed with Wills and Wirfs.
It’s a tough decision.