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Guarded Optimism for Cards

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

A week ago, when I looked up the NFC West 2020 PFF grades at each position, the Cardinals’ starting guards had the lowest grades at their position in terms of the projected starting guards in the division for 2021.

LG:

  1. SF: Tomlinson (78.8)
  2. SEA: Lewis (71.2)
  3. LAR: Edwards (70.5)
  4. ARZ: Pugh (64.8)

RG:

  1. LAR: Corbett** (73.6)
  2. SEA: Jackson** 63.7)
  3. SF: Brunskill (61.7)
  4. ARZ: Murray (56.7)

Let’s take a closer look at the numbers and what the players’ strengths are.

LG Justin Pugh (64.8)

  • This off-season, Justin Pugh agreed to a $4.2M pay cut, which lowers his 2021 cap hit to $6.98M. Here is Justin’s uplifting reaction to the pay cut:

“I do see Justin as our left guard and I think he had one of his best seasons as a pro last year. Played extremely consistent, and really excited about what he did for us on the field.”

  • What lowered Justin Pugh’s PFF grade: (1) 9 penalties; (2) a 62.7 run blocking grade; (3) having to play two games directly across from Aaron Donald.
  • Where there is good cause for optimism: (1) 74.4 pass blocking grade —- by far the highest pass blocking grade for a guard in the NFC West —- the other LGs: Edwards (64.4), Tomlinson (62.2), Lewis (47.0) —- plus Pugh’s 74.4 pass blocking grade was ranked #9 in NFL one spot ahead of the Cowboys’ All-Pro G Zack Martin.
  • Cause for optimism: (2) on the season, Pugh’s QB pressure numbers in pass protection were outstanding: he gave up 1 sack, 2 QB hits and 12 QB pressures in 16 games. (3) In two games versus Aaron Donald, Pugh gave up 0 sacks and only 2 QB pressures. In the first Rams game, Pugh incurred a false start penalty. In the second Rams game, he incurred a holding penalty on DT A’Shawn Robinson in the end zone that resulted in a safety, which, at the time, made the score Cardinals 7 Rams 5. Pugh had Robinson stonewalled at the point of attack, but Robinson rocked Pugh’s head back with a mitt to the face (which is illegal and should have been a penalty) and when Chris Streveler scrambled out of the end zone past Pugh for 7 yards, the flag was thrown on Pugh, despite his two hands being tucked just above Robinson’s numbers, which is textbook technique.

Conclusion:

In pass protection, Justin Pugh is the best, most talented and most fundamentally sound guard in the NFC West. If he can improve his run blocking grade and cut his number of penalties down to 3 this season, which is very much possible now that he is playing between LT D.J. Humphries and C Rodney Hudson, Justin Pugh has a chance to grade out as the top guard in the NFC West and as a viable Po Bowl candidate.

Justin Murray (56.7)

  • Signed a 2 year $5.5M contract extension which runs through 2022 and has a $1M injury guarantee in 2021, for a total of $1.75M in guaranteed money.
  • What lowered Justin Murray’s 2020 PFF grade was his poor 45.6 run blocking grade. In making the transition from tackle to guard in 2020, faring well in the running game was going to be Murray’s biggest challenge because of learning how to leverage 320 pound DTs and how to command the nuances of run blocking techniques. What’s curious is that the starter whom Murray replaced, J.R. Sweezy, whose forte has always been run blocking, also graded poorly in run blocking at 52.2. It’s no wonder when one considers the number of failed inside runs versus overloaded boxes the Cardinals had in 2020, particularly in short yardage situations.
  • Cause for optimism: (1) Justin Murray’s pass blocking grade of 73.7 was the best of the RGs in the NFC West (Jackson 69.9, Corbett 61.4, Brunskill 49.2) and it was #13th best in the NFL.
  • Cause for optimism: (2) Murray gave up 0 sacks, 2 QB hits and 9 pressures, while incurring only 1 penalty in 362 pass pro snaps.

Conclusion:

While Justin Pugh and Justin Murray need to improve their run blocking grades and should do so this season playing along side of All Pro C Rodney Hudson and two seasoned veterans in D.J. Humphries and Kelvin Beachum, for them to finish #9 and #13 in pass blocking this past season is a testament to their talent, to the overall improvement and cohesiveness of the Cardinals’ offensive line and to Sean Kugler’s coaching.

Other Candidates:

Brian Winters (54.6) —- played some of his best football when he was playing along side of Kelvin Beachum with the Jets a few years ago. However, his numbers with the Bills last year were very similar to J.R. Sweezy’s: 51.9 pass blocking and 57.9 run blocking (which is also supposed to be his forte).. He incurred 7 penalties while starting 23 of the games. Like Sweezy, Winters was benched during the second half of the season.

Josh Jones —- Sean Kugler likely tipped off that the Cardinals were interested in re-signing RT Kelvin Beachum when he told the Arizona media that Josh Jones has the versatility to play both tackle and guard. Jones’ versatility is what gave the chance to play 54 snaps as a situational TE last year in 12 personnel. While his run blocking grade (45.4) was a disappointment, his pass blocking at TE (78.3) was commendable.

Max Garcia (50.1) —- made it back to the roster last year from an ACL rehab and in 67 snaps his run blocking grade was 49.9 and his pass blocking grade was 49.3. This year Garcia should be back to 100% and could make a push to try to win the RG spot. But, Sean Kugler seems to prefer Garcia as the swing G/C backup on game days.

Best UFA Guard Still Available:

David DeCastro (66.2) —- might be mulling retirement due to a lingering ankle injury, but if anyone is a nifty fit in Sean Kugler’s offense at RG, that player is David DeCastro. Ankle issues and all, DeCastro’s 80.7 pass blocking grade was #5 in the NFL. He allowed 0 sacks, 2 QB hits and 16 QB hurries, while incurring only 2 penalties. His run blocking grade of 51.7, however, was the lowest of his illustrious career. As we know, the Steelers’ running game last year had its ups and downs. For a guard with an ankle injury, run blocking is more challenging because of the pressure and weight that drive blocking techniques put on a guard’s ankles, which is considerably less in fan blocking, pass pro techniques. However, if DeCastro’s ankle is feeling stronger and he wants to play this season, he’s played for Sean Kugler in the past, and of course, he has strong Steelers’ ties to RB James Connor, T Kelvin Beachum and the Cardinals’ RB coach James Saxon.

Conclusion:

If the Cardinals sign David DeCastro to an incentive laden contract, then he would be the starter at RG, if healthy. If not, the signs point to Justin Murray, as he is the best pass blocker, he’s the most familiar with the offense and is the highest paid. Plus, he is signed through 2022.

Do you concur?

Sean Kugler tends to like playing grizzled veterans, thus we certainly cannot count out Brian Winters, particularly in light of his previous chemistry with Kelvin Beachum.

But, in my opinion, Justin Murray at this point in his career could continue to emerge as a diamond in the rough. And even though Sean Kugler, as the newly appointed coordinator of the running game, is going to try to improve on last year’s inconsistencies in that key aspect of the Cardinals’ offense, protecting Kyler Murray has to be Sean Kugler’s and the team’s top priority.

The best pass blocking guards on the Cardinals’ 2021 roster and in the NFC West in 2020: Justin Pugh and Justin Murray.