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Kugler Feathering Cardinals’ O-Line Nest

Cleveland Browns v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Steve Keim, during his press conference yesterday, as summarized by Bob McManaman in the azcentral article above, justified his recent lack of moves in free agency (while the team still has glaring needs at CB and TE), by claiming the “quality over quantity” approach.

On the one hand, Steve Keim has a point because his stunning acquisitions of DE JJ Watt, C Rodney Hudson, WR A.J. Green and K Matt Prater pretty much chewed up 7 slices of an 8 slice salary cap budget. A budget that now needs to be expanded by virtue of some cap space maneuverings.

Yet, on the other hand, Steve Keim has made it a priority to provide Sean Kugler, the team’s offensive line coach and newly appointed coordinator of the running game, with a surplus of players. Keim called the OL room the deepest and most talented the Cardinals have had under his watch. Yup!

What Kugler and Keim have assembled is two respectable NFL offensive lines and 3rd offensive line of young, aspiring talents:

Team A

LT D.J. Humphries, LG Justin Pugh, C Rodney Hudson, RB Justin Murray, RT Kelvin Beachum

Team B

LT Josh Jones, LG Max Garcia, C Mason Cole, RG Brian Winters, RT Marcus Gilbert

Team C

T Joshua Miles, G Sean Harlow, C Lamont Gaillard, G Koda Martin/Shaq Calhoun, T Branden Brown

For Sean Kugler: this offensive line group is “quality AND quantity”.

For those who still want to see the Cardinals cut Justin Pugh, their best interior lineman in 2020 (64.8 O, 74.4 pass blocking, 62.7 run blocking), Steve Keim made it crystal clear: “Justin Pugh is our left guard.”

Unlike other Cardinals’ coaches who now have some empty chairs in their rooms, Sean Kugler has the luxury of having all of his players back, save for J.R. Sweezy, who now has been replaced by veteran RG Brian Winters, one of Kelvin Beachum’s tightest line mates from his years on the Jets.

With 4 of the 5 starting positions set (Humphries, Pugh, Hudson, Beachum), there will be a heated competition for the starting RG spot between Justin Murray, Mason Cole and Brian Winters. Winters certainly has the edge in terms of experience.

He was signed by the Bills early in training camp last year after they lost their starting RG Jon Feliciano to injury. Thus, to be fair to Brian Winters, he had to learn a new offense surrounded by a new center and a new right tackle, without the benefit of an off-season program.

Clearly, we know very well by now that Sean Kugler prefers to start veterans. Thus, an early prediction that the starting lineup could look like Humphries, Pugh, Hudson, Winters and Beachum, with Mason Cole as the swing G/C, Justin Murray as the swing G/T and Josh Jones as the swing tackle.

When Sean Kugler said that Josh Jones could also be used at guard, it was likely meant as a hint that Kelvin Beachum was returning to start at RT. Beachum’s 2 year $4M contract actually looks like a 1 year $3.5M deal (g-ted) that was stretched to 2 years for salary cap purposes. D.J. Humphries is in year 2 of his 3 year deal. Therefore, this gives Sean Kugler added time to develop Josh Jones as an heir to Humphries at LT and/or Beachum at RT.

At this point the wild card of the group is Mason Cole, who might be the most talented of the RG candidates. Now that Rodney Hudson is starting at center, with capable reserves behind him in Max Garcia and Lamont Gaillard, Cole can focus primarily on playing guard this season, that is unless the Cardinals put him on the trade market.

The offensive line is complimented well in the running game by TE Maxx Williams and situational blocking TE Josh Jones. Now that Dan Arnold has moved on, there is another Houston Texan and former Cardinal TE who could make a lot of sense: Darren Fells (2020 grades: 69.4 O, 66.0 pass game, 68.8 pass blocking and 65.3 run blocking). Fells is about to turn 35, but the quality of his play remains very impressive. In his two years with the Texans, he caught 55 passes for 653 yards and 11 TDs. For those of you who remember Fells, he is very tough to bring down in the open field and is a valuable red zone target.

Meanwhile, the coach who must be twisting in the wind these days is DC Vance Joseph. Surely, he is elated to have JJ Watt strengthen the front 7 and is happy to have Dennis Gardeck, Tanner Vallejo and Zeke Turner returning. Steve Keim said that Gardeck’s working his tail off in his rehab and that the expectation is that he will be healthy and ready to go for the season. How exciting and encouraging is that prognosis?!

Keim also mentioned his reason for placing the 2nd round tender ($3.4M) on Dennis Gardeck, saying that numerous personnel guys around the league have been expressing their love for Gardeck to Keim. If The Barbarian is ready to go, the question is will he become Haason Reddick’s replacement at SAM OLB, in addition to being a valuable pass rusher in the nickel?

However, what Vance Joseph has to be very concerned about right now is how his pass overages are going to look without three of his key cover guys from last year in De’Vondre Campbell, Haason Reddick and Patrick Peterson. Obviously, Reddick and Peterson have moved on, but it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if Steve Keim finds a way to re-sign Campbell, who can give Vance Joseph added flexibility and coverage matchups at the LB positions in the base 34 and in the nickel.

Cardinals fans, myself included, are anxiously awaiting the signing of two free agent CBs. Bobby Mac put this tidy list of available CBs together, his 10th being Gareon Conley (25, HOU):

I would add my favorite UFA CB to this list: Brian Poole (28, NYJ), whose 2020 grades were: 77.1 O, 69.8 run defense, 83.6 tackling and 79.5 pass coverage. Poole only gave up 27 catches on 40 targets for 261 yards and 0 TDs, while posting 45 tackles (only 2 missed tackles all season), 13 stops and 2 interceptions. Poole is scheme versatile. He can play outside and in the slot. He brings a much-needed lunch pail mentality to the position.

I am fascinated with Gareon Conley, who is a superb talent at 6’ 0”, 195 and 4.4 speed. JJ Watt knows him well and would be able to steer Steve Keim in his direction if Watt believes in his former teammate. Conley sat out this past season. His 2019 grades: 64.5 O, 53.8 run defense, 62.2 tackling, 65.8 pass coverage.

I am also fascinated with Malcolm Butler, not only because of the quality of his play (2020 grades: 74.5 O, 61.2 run defense, 75.0 tackling, 75.8 pass coverage), but because of the great karma he has at State Farm Stadium where he made the most famous game-saving interception in Super Bowl history when he picked off Russell Wilson on that ill-advised 1st and goal from the 1 yard line slant pass in the end zone. The fact that Butler’s grand interception as an undrafted rookie came against Pete Carroll, Russell Wilson and the Seahawks feels extra significant and special.

As for another possible option, the thought of Steve Keim giving up the team’s 2nd round pick (#49) to acquire either Stephan Gilmore or J.C. Jackson of the Patriots is very appealing.

Someone on twitter yesterday speculated that Keim has an ace up his sleeve (a deal that’s already been agreed upon) that he’s not showing yet. I hope that indeed is the case.

While hoping for the CB acquisitions, I am ardently hoping that Steve Keim re-signs the two special teams aces and solid backup safeties, Charles Washington and Chris Banjo.

Feathering the Cardinals’ nest in all the rooms would be sweet.

Because this year feels like the best year to draft a stud RB to pair with Kyler Murray and Chase Edmonds. After all, now that the offensive line looks to be the most talented and deepest it’s been since the 1970s, imagine what the Cardinals’ running and passing game performances would look like with a dynamo like Travis Etienne, Najee Harris or Javonte Williams. The fact that Travis Etienne views the Cardinals as his “dream” team is a huge plus. Thus, as Kyler Murray would say, “let’s get it.”