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2020 NFC West: Cs

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NFL: SEP 08 Lions at Cardinals Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Background: GLENDALE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 08: Arizona Cardinals center Mason Cole (52) looks on during the NFL football game between the Detroit Lions and the Arizona Cardinals on September 8, 2019 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

ARI: Mason Cole, 24, 6-4, 306, 3rd year, 3rd Round pick 2018, 2019 PFF grade: 58.4, 2/$1.9M total remaining on his rookie contract.

LAR: Brian Allen, 24, 6-2, 303, 3rd year, 4th Round pick 2018, 2019 PFF grade: 58.6, 2/$1.9M

SF: Weston Richburg, 28, 6-4, 295, 7th year, 2nd Round pick 2014 (NYG), 2019 PFF grade: 62.5, 3/$28M

SEA: B.J. Finney, 28, 6-4, 317, 5th year, UCFA 2015 (PIT), 2019 PFF grade: 56.9, 2/$8M

The grizzled veteran of this group is the 49ers’ Weston Richberg, Justin Pugh’s old teammate with the New York Giants.

When healthy, Richburg is regarded as one of the league’s more athletic and versatile centers. However, he has dealt with concussion issues in the past and last year in Week 14 he was placed on the IR with a torn patella tendon. The 2020 cap hit for Richburg is $4.39M, but his 2021 and 2022 cap hits are $11.4M and $12.2M. Therefore, it’s very likely that the 49ers will opt out of his lucrative contract in 2021 and take an $8M dead cap hit in order to save over $15M.

In the photo above for the Cardinals’ Week 1 game versus the Lions last season, that was the first game of Mason Cole’s high school, college and pro career that he did not start. Pretty amazing, isn’t it?

While the coaches in training camp last year were billing the starting center job as competition between A.Q. Shipley and Mason Cole, the feeling from the get-go was that the coaches wanted to surround their rookie QB, Kyler Murray, with as many veterans as possible. In reality, the job was pretty much Shipley’s from day one, as Cole was being groomed to be the “swing C and G.”

A.Q. made a spirited return from his season ending ACL injury in 2018 and was named a captain. His overall PFF grade of 57.6 was the lowest of his career, mostly due to a below average run blocking grade of 50.7. However, A.Q. was a solid 71.0 in pass protection, surrendering only 2 sacks and 15 total QB pressures, while incurring 4 penalties.

The Cardinals’ coaches decided this year to turn the reins over to Mason Cole, who filled in admirably at LG for two games when Justin Pugh was moved over to RT in place of an injured Justin Murray.

Both GM Steve Keim and HC Kliff Kingsbury have expressed how excited they are to have Cole in the pivot because of how his athleticism can allow him to wreak havoc on the 1st and 2nd levels of the defense.

Teammate D.J. Humphries has offered high praise of his line-mate, saying that Cole “never backs down from a challenge, and you have to like that. In the fight or flight instinct, he’s going to fight every time.”

In a recent video conference Cole accentuated the positives of his experience last year: “I think having that year being a backup was huge for me. To watch a guy like A.Q. and all the other vets in the room work and how they prepare, It’s a year that I never really had. In a weird way, having that year off actually really helped me, helped me learn from other guys and see the room from a whole other perspective.”

As Cardinals’ fans know, Mason Cole had his fair share of struggles as a rookie while being the only starter on the OL to play all 16 games. His run blocking was solid at 58.7 but his pass blocking grade of 41.9 (2 sacks, 35 QB pressures and 3 penalties) lowered his overall grade to 53.0.

Playing and making the pass protection calls from the pivot in the NFL is tough on any rookie—-but every coach will tell you that trying to coordinate the pass pro pre-snap calls with new combinations of players on the OL every week makes it all the more challenging, especially against teams that like to run inside twists and LB blitzes up the A gaps on a regular basis.

However, now that Mason Cole has a healthy and experienced group around him—-and—-now that he has a highly mobile QB behind him—-it is quite possible that Cole’s pass blocking grades will improve dramatically. His 2019 pass blocking grades at LG in his two starts were 64.3 versus the 49ers and 80.7 (best grade on OL) versus the Bucs.

The Rams’ center Brian Allen was taken a round after Mason Cole in the 2018 draft. While he lacks Cole’s size, Allen brings a similar Big 10 tenacity to the position. He has started 22 games the past two seasons, 9 of them last year. This off-season he was the first NFL player to be tested positive for COVID-19. He has since made a full recovery.

The Seahawks have made a change at center this season, having signed former Steeler B.J. Finney to a 2 year $8M deal. The Seahawks are moving on from their 2014 2nd round pick, Justin Britt (6-6, 315, 62.0 2019 PFF grade—-8 games), who for a few years was considered their top interior offensive lineman. Last year, Britt was continuing to play well in the Seahawks’ vaunted running attack (66.7 run blocking grade), but was having his worst season is pass protection (45.7). In Week 8 he suffered a season ending knee injury, which he continues to rehab. At the moment, he is an unrestricted free agent.

It’s an interesting swap of Justin Britt for B.J. Finney in that their 2019 PFF grades are the reverse—-with Finney performing well in pass coverage at 72.0 while playing double digit snaps in 5 games at center and 2 at LG—-yet struggling in the running game at 52.1.

As Cardinals’ fans look at the talent at center in the NFC West, there may be good reasons to believe that Mason Cole, in terms of his age and natural talent, is in a prime position to challenge Weston Richburg as the top pivotman in the division.

Best Stat:

In Mason Cole’s first start at LG in the Week 9 28-25 loss at home versus the 49ers and their talented front 7, his grades across the board were commendable:

68.1 overall, 64.3 pass blocking, 66.5 run blocking.

What a boon it would be for the Cardinals if they can get that kind of production from Mason Cole at center this season.

(Note: I am planning to write articles like this and the ones I have already posted for the NFC West LTs and LGs, for all 22 of the starting positions (plus one on STs and one of team depth)—-but, due to the few comments these articles have generated thus far—-would you like me to continue or would you prefer that I turn my attention elsewhere?) Your feedback is valuable.