The Cardinals need to fortify their interior offensive line in the offseason with free agent and NFL Draft acquisitions in order to remain competitive in the NFC West.
According to Over the Cap, they are projected to have $8,699,065 in salary cap space. With the likelihood of the Cardinals releasing CB Robert Alford and restructuring the contracts of Chandler Jones and Justin Pugh, they can free up at least another $10 million in cap space.
Taking a look at the Cardinals’ offensive line, they have their franchise left tackle in place in D.J. Humphries. He was the fourth highest graded (88.3) offensive tackle in the NFL by Pro Football Focus. He finished the year with a 79.9 pass blocking grade (18th) and 90.8 run blocking (3rd). His 23 pressures allowed was the 10th-least among tackles that played in over 900 snaps.
Justin Pugh will continue to man the left guard position. One of the leaders of the Cardinals, Pugh is coming off a breakout season where he was the ninth-best pass blocking guard in the NFL, finishing with a 74.4 PFF pass blocking grade. His 15 pressures allowed was the second-least among guards, trailing only Packers’ Elgton Jenkins.
As for right tackle, the Cardinals have options even with Kelvin Beachum scheduled to be a free agent. With 10-year veteran Marcus Gilbert set to return from his opt-out and 2020 third-round pick Josh Jones poised to make a push for the starting job, it’ll be a position battle worth watching.
After these three positions, center and right guard were the weak links on their offensive line.
Mason Cole was a full-time starting center for the second time in his three years in the NFL since being a third-round pick in 2018. He struggled mightily in 2020, failing to meet the expectations the Cardinals had for him as A.Q. Shipley’s successor. Cole was the second-most penalized (8) center in the NFL and his 23 pressures allowed was the eighth-most at his position this season. He was also graded as the sixth-worst center by PFF with a 54.9 overall grade.
Justin Murray surpassed J.R. Sweezy on the depth chart towards the end of the season and with good reason. He finished the year with a 73.7 pass blocking grade. In 602 offensive snaps, he allowed only 11 pressures and was penalized only once. The 27-year-old is a better pass blocker than he is as a run blocker. With Sweezy set to be a free agent, Murray is in line to start again in 2021.
After the starters, the depth of their offensive line could use improving. The Cardinals remain intrigued with 2019 seventh-round pick Joshua Miles at offensive tackle. Lamont Gaillard made a few starts at center this season and could battle for the starting center job if the Cardinals decide not to add a free agent in the offseason. Koda Martin, who was on their practice squad all year, could be next season’s swiss army knife as a player that has played all positions on the offensive line. Max Garcia is scheduled to be a free agent.
Despite some of the successes in 2020, they must cut down on penalties. Humphries’ seven penalties were tied for ninth-most among tackles. Justin Pugh’s nine penalties were second-most among guards. Cole’s eight penalties were second-most among centers. The Cardinals were the most penalized team this season and that has to change in 2021.
With that said, the Cardinals must make upgrading the center spot a priority along with adding some young, healthy competition for the starting guard positions. The first step to improve the run game is by beefing up the interior offensive line. And fortunately for them, free agency will have quality options as well as the draft.
If the Cardinals want to break the bank for a center, there is no better player than Packers’ Corey Linsley. With reports that the Packers not having ongoing contract talks with the veteran, good chance he will hit free agency. He graded out with an 86.4 overall grade (1st), 82.7 pass blocking (4th), and 83.4 run blocking (2nd). He allowed seven pressures and was not penalized in 2020.
Another option at center that will be more affordable is Chiefs’ Austin Reiter. He has not allowed a sack all season and was not penalized either. He was the fifth-best pass blocking guard according to PFF.
For either guard positions, Alabama’s Deonte Brown (6-3 364lbs), Georgia’s Ben Cleveland (6-6 354lbs), and Tennessee’s Trey Smith (6-5 331lbs) are some of my favorite draft prospects. Smith played primarily on the left side while Cleveland at right guard. Brown has experience playing both guard positions.
One of the biggest reasons why Cleveland is one of my favorite interior prospects is because he possesses powerful upper and lower body strength to compete at the NFL level compared to Keim’s previous draft picks with strength issues such as Dorian Johnson and Cole Toner. He is more athletic than people give him credit for.
The Senior Bowl will feature many of the best offensive line prospects in the upcoming draft, which is scheduled to take place this Saturday, January 30th in Mobile, Alabama.
Keim must stop drafting players that need to get stronger and acquire players that already have the strength to compete and make a real positive difference. Protect Kyler Murray, get the run game going by getting stronger up front, cut down on penalties, and start taking the offense to new heights.
This will be the most crucial offseason for Steve Keim and Kliff Kingsbury yet in what could determine their futures with the Arizona Cardinals after the 2021 league year.