Second half of the season slumps continued to haunt the Cardinals for a second-straight year in the midst of the best start of the Kliff Kingsbury-Kyler Murray era last season.
The Arizona Cardinals were arguably the best team in the NFL through the first seven weeks of 2021 regular season before Kyler Murray went down with an ankle injury and did not look the same upon his return.
One of the biggest reasons for his struggles was the declining protection from his offensive line.
Left tackle D.J. Humphries went through a brutal four-game stretch to end the regular season, allowing three sacks and 23 total pressures during that time. He surrendered only four sacks and 19 pressures in the 12 games prior. Penalties remain the biggest issue for him having been penalized 31 times over the last three seasons.
As he enters the final year of his three-year contract, his cap hit in 2022 is set at around $19.33 million. If released, the Cardinals would save $15 million in cap space while taking on $4.33 in dead money according to Over the Cap. An extension could save the Cardinals north of $10 million by prorating his 2022 cap hit into future seasons.
Durability is not a concern considering Humphries missed only one game over the last three years. He made 48 starts during that time as well as starting in the Wild Card playoff game against the Rams. The Cardinals would be wise to extend him now to secure their left tackle for the future and add to their $12 million in cap space as they prepare to be aggressive in free agency.
Right beside him on the offensive line is Justin Pugh, who is also entering the final year of his contract. He is actually coming off one of the best seasons of his career, allowing only 19 pressures, penalized only twice, and not giving up a sack through 14 games in 2021.
Cardinals would save north of $9.8 million in cap space if released but after a respectable year, it really is not all that reasonable for Arizona to release either Pugh or Humphries. Pugh took a pay cut last season because he wanted to stay in Arizona. His play last season should keep him in the desert for at least another season.
Last year, the Cardinals wanted to find an immediate upgrade at the center position to replace Mason Cole. Arizona shipped Cole to Minnesota for a sixth-round pick and acquired All-Pro Center Rodney Hudson from the Las Vegas Raiders in exchange for a third-round pick.
The Hudson addition paid dividends as he was an effective communicator in situations such as identifying the zero blitz in Week 1 in the third quarter that led to a Christian Kirk 26-yard touchdown catch. He was also a quality blocker, allowing only four pressures all of last season. Max Garcia and Sean Harlow saw snaps at the center position in the five games that Hudson missed but both had their fair share of struggles.
Kelvin Beachum re-signed with Arizona to a two-year $4 million contract last offseason and has been a stout blocker at right tackle for the majority of the season. He was one of the best bargain signings of 2021 aside from James Conner and Markus Golden.
The one position on the offensive line that needs upgrading is right guard. In the beginning of their last offseason, Kliff Kingsbury and OL coach Sean Kugler made a four-way battle for the starting right guard job between 2020 third-round pick Josh Jones, Max Garcia, Justin Murray, and Brian Winters. Unfortunately the Cardinals got mixed results but they were mainly disappointing.
Jones was penalized 12 times while seeing significant action at both the guard and tackle positions on the right side. He drew eight starts in 12 games but had a rough year overall. Max Garcia started 11 of 15 games at right guard and center but was completely overpowered more often than not throughout the season. Brian Winters was released after Week 2.
Justin Murray suffered a season-ending back injury in Week 3 but since being a priority waiver claim by the Cardinals in 2019, he has been a rock solid offensive linemen. People forget he completely shut down Nick Bosa when he faced off against the 49ers in 2019. His success at the guard and tackle positions should make him worth keeping but Arizona would save $2.3 million if released.
2019 seventh-round pick Joshua Miles, Sean Harlow, and Marcus Henry will be battling for roster spots in the upcoming season. Cardinals’ practice squad players in Danny Isidora and Koda Martin were signed to futures contracts and will have an opportunity to make the final roster as well.
If the Cardinals want to upgrade the guard position in free agency, Austin Corbett, James Daniels, Rodger Saffold, Brandon Scherff, and Trai Turner will be available.
The 2022 NFL Draft includes interior offensive line prospects such as Texas A&Ms Kenyon Green, Boston College’s Zion Johnson, and Iowa’s Tyler Linderbaum.
The success of any football team on either the offense or defense starts with the trenches. Right guard is one of the Cardinals biggest needs heading into the offseason and they will have ample opportunities to find an upgrade.