As mentioned in previous articles, but just to keep the record in focus, here are the Cardinals’ 2019 PFF grades for their starting offensive linemen:
LG Justin Pugh—-66.8
LT D.J. Humphries—-64.5
RT Justin Murray—-62.9
RG J.R. Sweezy—-61.6
C A.Q. Shipley—-57.6
Over the last 6 weeks of the season:
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: 55.2
Curiously—-the whole off-season rage in the local and nation media and amongst a hoard of Cardinals’ fans is how the Cardinals’ greatest area of need on the OL is at right tackle.
Even though Justin Murray graded out as the best player on the Cardinals’ OL the last 6 weeks and won PFF’s Right Tackle of the Week award for his stellar performance in the Cardinals’ near upset of the 49ers at home on Thursday Night Football—-Justin Murray, to most pundits and fans—-might as well be the Invisible Man.
Either that—-or—-a veritable persona non grata.
However, the Cardinals’ coaches liked what they saw in Justin Murray, who drew praise from Kliff Kingsbury, not only for his 2019 performance (which after a waiver wire claim prior to Week 1 and in light of Marcus Gilbert’s season ending injury, meant that Murray had to learn Kingsbury’s playbook in less than a week to be the starter in Game 1 versus the Lions), but Kingsbury also praised Murray for his versatility, saying that he could play guard, if called on.
Not only did the Cardinals pick up Justin Murray’s ERFA tender, they recently re-signed Marcus Gilbert to an incentive laden contract worth up the $3.5M. Just today, Kingsbury said, “until his injury, Marcus Gilbert was our best offensive lineman.”
On the opposite side of Murray and Gilbert, D.J. Humphries was awarded with a new 3 year $45M contract. And by all accounts, at least the Cardinals’ GM and coaches appear to like what they have going at offensive tackle.
Justin Pugh had a very good bounce back season for the Cardinals as the left guard and is an emerging leader.
But, when one looks at the analytics, the two positions on the Cardinals’ 2019 offensive line that were the weakest were the right guard and center spots, manned by J.R. Sweezy and A.Q. Shipley, two hard-nosed veteran players in their 30s.
While Sweezy was somewhat penalty prone, for the first 10 games he brought passion and bounce to the RG position. Then over the last 6 weeks, perhaps a combination of injuries, age and playing Aaron Donald twice caught up with him.
Surprisingly, in an concerted effort to maintain as much continuity along the OL as possible, the Cardinals elected to retain J.R. Sweezy, rather than release him to recover $4M of cap space. Sweezy’s 2020 cap figure in this the last year of his 2 year deal is $6.5M.
Obviously, the Cardinals are hoping for the kind of bounce back season for J.R. Sweezy that Justin Pugh (2020 cap hit of $10.5M) gave them in 2019.
With every other starter on the 2019 OL returning, A.Q. Shipley, thus far, has been the lone exception. Shipley will be 34 in May and while his 2019 story was a remarkable one, bouncing back from a torn ACL in 2018 to re-capturing the starting job and being named a team captain in the process—-whenKliff Kingsbury was asked today whether Shipley will be re-signed, he said, it (a possible deal) is “still a work in progress” and “we’ll see where that goes.”
To this point, Shipley has deftly managed to stave off Steve Keim’s three draft picks at center over the past four years in Evan Boehm (4th Round in 2016), Mason Cole (3rd Round in 2018) and Lamont Gaillard (6th Round in 2019).
But it was Steve Keim who promptly re-signed Shipley to a one year deal following Shipley’s ACL injury in 2018—-and it is widely known that Shipley was a big favorite of Bruce Arians, Harold Goodwin and Steve Keim—-plus Shipley is well liked among the veteran players such as Justin Pugh and D.J. Humphries.
The problem is, the downward trending of these grades in his 3 season as the Cardinals starting center:
2019: 57.6 (28th among NFL starters)
2017: 61.3 (27th)
2016: 71.9 (20th)
Yes—-Shipley has been staving off the draft picks—-but he’s been giving Steve Keim all the more reason to keep drafting centers.
The Cardinals have yet to share with the media what their plan is at center, but it is assumed by many that 2018 starter Mason Cole is their guy. After all, the Cardinals used a 3rd round pick in 2018 on Cole, and while he struggled as a rookie full-time starter in 2018, it should be noted that he played under two OCs (McCoy and Leftwich) and 2 QBs (Bradford and Rosen) while adjusting to 10 different OL combinations due to an avalanche of injuries.
Note: few players are affected more from having new players in the lineup next to them week to week than a starting center. Line play is all about coordination and communication.
Some of the skeptics have been lamenting that their confidence in Cole is low because “he couldn’t beat out Shipley.”
But, just as it isn’t very fair to judge Mason Cole for his play in the worst offense in the NFL in 2018, it isn't very fair to blame him for not beating out A.Q. Shipley in 2019.
As stated earlier, Shipley is a popular player among the veterans and in this case Shipley also had the advantage of having played for new OL coach Sean Kugler with the Steelers earlier in his career.
Plus, Shipley is like a pit-bull with a bone. There was no way in his mind a 2nd year player or even worse, a rookie, would beat him out.
Moreover, with live hitting in practice being so limited in training camps these days—-it puts veterans at a distinct advantage.
It also should be noted that in training camp Kugler was grooming Cole to be a swing guard and center. In the first two pre-season games, Cole played mostly at guard.
When Cole finally did play center in Week 3 at Minnesota, Cole’s game grade was an 81.1
Shipley’s and Cole’s pre-season grades were:
Overall: Shipley—-60.7; Cole—-65.7
Pass Blocking: Shipley—-75.7; Cole—-72.3
Run Blocking: Shipley—-55.1; Cole—-61.4
In 211 snaps at LG in 2019, Mason Cole’s grade were: 58.4 (overall), 63.3 pass blocking; 59.1 (run blocking—-which was the highest run blocking grade this season of anyone’s on the OL—-while Shipley’s was the lowest at 50.7).
It is also encouraging that Cole’s grades in the one game he played at center (12 snaps) during the season in the win at Seattle were: 65.5 (overall), 79.2 (pass blocking) and 62.8 (run blocking). Small sample size, but worth noting.
Another encouraging fact is that Lamont Gaillard’s 2019 pre-season grades at center were 64.8 (overall), 83.0 (pass blocking) and 57.1 (run blocking). Yes, this was against 2nd and 3rd stringers—-but, still. For a rookie, that’s a good start.
Could it be that Kingsbury and Kugler believe that Lamont Gaillard can push Mason Cole for the starting job?
Gaillard was a stud in the pivot at Georgia.
The Cardinals also re-signed veteran G/C Max Garcia for depth at both positions.
What’s interesting and very curious—-in perusing the names of all of the 2020 draft prospects the Cardinals have met with or shown expressed interest in, none of them are centers.
if the Cardinals are privately hoping to draft their starting center in the 2020 draft, it would behoove Steve Keim to trade down from the #8 pick in order to pick up an added 2nd round pick or another 3rd round, because Cesar Ruiz (Michigan) and Lloyd Cushenberry (LSU) are expected to be taken on Day 2, with Ruiz possibly being taken late in Round 1.
Either that or trade down into the late part of Round 1 and take Ruiz or Cushenberry right then and there.
In my opinion, Ruiz and Cushenberry are the only plug-and-play starting centers in this draft.
However, there are three center prospects in Tyler Biadasz (Wisconsin), Nick Harris (Washington) and Matt Hennessey (Temple) who are likely to develop into good starters in a year or two once they improve their overall strength (to nullify NFL bull rushing DTs). Right now it appears that all three will be available on Day 3.
Perhaps the Cardinals have a draft plan in place that involves finding a way to draft Cesar Ruiz (who Kugler knows well because his son played next to Ruiz at Michigan) or Lloyd Cushenberry (who has 34 1/8” arms, was named a “permanent captain” at LSU and then was lauded as the national champions’ team MVP—-which sure is saying something, isn’t it?).
If not—-the plan all along was to go with Mason Cole or Lamont Gaillard—-
Or—-if the draft plan fails and the Cardinals miss out on Ruiz and Cushenberry—-then the plan might be to bring back A.Q. Shipley.
Who do you want the Cardinals 2020 starting center to be:
A. A.Q. Shipley
B. Mason Cole
C. Lamont Gaillard
D. Cesar Ruiz
E. Lloyd Cushenberry
F. Other: _____________________________