In his rookie year in 2018, the former third-round pick Mason Cole was forced into the week one starting lineup after A.Q. Shipley went down with a season-ending injury.
Despite Cole starting all 16 regular season games as a rookie, he was relegated to backup duties the very next season having lost the battle for the starting center job back to Shipley.
But now, the 34-year-old Shipley is a free agent.
With his departure and the Cardinals confidence in their younger players, Cole has been handed back the keys as the starting center for the upcoming 2020 season.
“After a year of kind of being in the background, being a backup, I’m just really looking forward to being back out there all the time,” Cole said in a video call on Monday. “I obviously hope to have a good year and hopefully one of these years make the Pro Bowl.”
Despite the drop off in snaps from 942 as a rookie starter to 204 snaps as a backup last season, the 24-year-old was not upset.
Although it was his first time being a backup since he started playing football, Cole valued the experience greatly. He was able to sit and learn from the veterans in the locker room which he was not able to do in year one.
“I think having that year being a backup was huge for me,” Cole said. “To watch a guy like A.Q. and all the other vets in the room work and how they prepare. It’s a year I never really had. In a weird way, having that year off actually really helped me. Help me learn from the older guys and see the room from a whole different perspective.”
One person that has helped Cole in his growth as a center is offensive line coach Sean Kugler.
“I credit [Kugler] to helping me a lot,” Cole said. “Even in this past year, I think I made my biggest jump technique-wise and performance-wise that I’ve probably made in my whole career.”
Without a doubt, Kugler has done a great job with the offensive line. Their improvement led to the strong ground attack by the Cardinals’ offense last season led by Kenyan Drake and Chase Edmonds. There was significant progress in pass protection from the regular season opener to the season finale.
Although 2019 sixth-round pick Lamont Gaillard could compete with Cole for the starting job in training camp, the expectation in the Cardinals organization is for Cole to be the starter.
Cole has made a lot of strides in his first two years in the NFL. Entering his third season, he has a chance to lock down the starting center job this year and continue to snap the ball to Kyler Murray for the foreseeable future with the Cardinals.