Picture an old-school football coach. Some grizzled dude in glasses with a whistle hanging around his neck, yelling to his players during practice. Waving his clipboard around. Maybe he’s even a line coach.
“Football games are won and lost in the trenches!”
“You need to be strong at the point of attack!”
“You build a team from the line of scrimmage out!”
All those old football aphorisms may sound a bit cliched, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t truth to them, even in today’s NFL that’s centered around the passing game. The line of scrimmage is no less important now than it was 50 years ago.
And that gives me concern when it comes to the Cardinals. Right now, it looks like we have gaping holes in the middle of each of our lines. Could that doom the Cardinals this season?
The Rodney Hudson saga is well documented at this point, although much is still unclear. Has he lost his love for the game? Or just the Cardinals? Is he really going to retire, or is he trying to force his way out of the desert? (I mean, it’s probably the latter.) Either way, the much-lauded trade for the former Pro Bowl center last offseason hasn’t exactly turned out the way most envisioned. He missed a few games last season, but even when he was on the field, he was… adequate at best. A far cry from the player who had previously been one of the best centers in the league.
If this all gets figured out and we wind up with an “adequate” Hudson this year, fine. I don’t think anyone is expecting him to return to his previous form even if he comes back to the team. But if he doesn’t come back, we could be in big trouble. ESPN’s depth chart currently shows nothing but blank spaces behind Hudson. There are obviously internal (convert a guard like Justin Pugh or one of the younger guys) and external (see here and here) options to replace Hudson if needed, but none of those is a sure thing.
If worst comes to worst, we could be looking at a revolving door of replacement-level-type players at center all season long. That might in turn destabilize the rest of the O-line (especially the guard spots), which could spell disaster for the run game and make Kyler Murray’s life infinitely more difficult in the passing game. I’m catastrophizing here, but it’s a real possibility. Let’s just hope either A) Hudson returns and is solid at worst, or B) GM Steve Keim makes a move to replace him with someone decent.
We now move across the line of scrimmage to the defensive tackle position, where the only two experienced, natural DTs on the depth chart are third-year players Rashard Lawrence and Leki Fotu. (ESPN is also showing blank spaces behind them on their depth chart.) I remember when they were drafted in the middle rounds in 2020. Both were highly regarded leaders of strong college defenses (LSU and Utah, respectively.) A lot of folks (me included) thought we had a couple of steals on our hands.
But their college production and pedigree haven’t translated to the pros yet, and you have to start wondering if these two players have much “potential” left. They have a combined 50 tackles and 1 sack across 4 combined seasons of experience, playing about 1/3 of the defensive snaps. Of the two, Fotu has played much more (656 snaps compared to 385 for Lawrence), but he has graded as one of the worst DTs in the league per PFF in those snaps (41.0 grade in 2020, 37.1 last year). Lawrence, the presumed starter, has fared a little better (47.8 grade in 2020 and improving to a solid 66.4 last year, albeit in limited snaps). But none of these numbers—nor their play thus far—exactly inspire confidence that this tandem can successfully man the middle of the D-line as more than part-time players.
Is Keim really that confident in these two? Is this the best he can do? I’ve been banging the drum all offseason for the team to make an addition at DT, but no moves have been made, either in the draft or free agency. Which is just strange. I suppose a leap from one or both of these guys isn’t out of the question, but it seems unlikely given what we’ve seen. More concerningly, we seem to be banking on those breakouts that might not be coming. At this point, I’d be overjoyed if we brought Corey Peters back. Or even just signed a JAG-type off the street. Someone, anyone. Especially with such unproven ILBs who’ll playing behind them—although I have more confidence in Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins than I do in Lawrence and Fotu. But that’s not saying much.
Defensive tackle has been a need all offseason, while center is a relatively new one with the Hudson story coming to light late in the summer. But the lack of stability at the lynchpin positions on each line are troubling, and could make it difficult—or even impossible—for the Cardinals to improve on last season’s 11-6 record.
Can Keim figure things out in the next month or so? You’d hope so—after all, he’s a former offensive lineman. A guard, in fact. If anyone knows the value of those big boys in the middle of the line, it’s him.
Let’s hope he has his clipboard out right now and is circling the names of some of those big guys who can help the Cardinals in the middle this season.
After all, football games are won and lost in the trenches.