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Cardinals OL Justin Pugh: Don’t include me on your injury-prone list

@JustinPugh / Twitter

TEMPE, Ariz. – Justin Pugh read the stories after he signed a five-year deal with the Cardinals in March for about $45 million. He didn’t like what he read.

With Arizona also bringing in quarterback Sam Bradford, the narrative was that the team had signed an injury prone free-agent class. Pugh missed eight games of the 2017 season with a back injury.

Could the Cardinals rely on him to shore up an offensive line in bad need of an upgrade? Could he help protect the injury-prone Bradford and give the Cardinals a chance to improve on last season’s 8-8 record?

“Some people didn’t even know what happened with me,” Pugh said. “They thought I got surgery on my back. That’s people not doing their diligence.”

Here’s how Pugh describes last season with the New York Giants, who finished 3-13.

“We were struggling up front and they moved me to a position I hadn’t played in two years,” Pugh said. “I’m out there playing right tackle and then they were like, ‘we need you to play left guard’ and then next week it’s back to right tackle.

“That’s not good for your body. You can’t get used to it that fast and there was some anxiety because I hadn’t played the position in two years, going to right tackle. They were like, ‘OK, we’re playing [Broncos linebacker] Von Miller this week. We need you to go to right tackle. We’re playing [Rams tackle] Aaron Donald. You’ve got to go back to left guard.’

“I just put one on the back for the team, no pun intended, and it ended up not helping me too much. It would have been a totally different story this past year if I wasn’t in that situation.”

Pugh, 27, said he suffered painful back spasms but multiple exams revealed no structural damage. He went to see renowned back specialist Dr. Robert Watkins, whose list of pro clients is long, including former Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash, former Coyotes forwards Shane Doan and Martin Hanzal, and former Cardinals running back Adrian Peterson.

“We just did some core work,” Pugh said. “It’s about keeping my strength there and keeping my flexibility. I’m not worried about it at all now. There are no issues.”

The Giants selected Pugh in the first round (No. 19) of the 2013 NFL Draft out of Syracuse, where he was teammates with Cardinals defensive end Chandler Jones. Pugh missed just four games his first three seasons, then missed the final five of the 2016 season with an MCL sprain. Through the first nine games of that season, he was ranked as the top offensive left guard in the NFL by Pro Football Focus with an overall grade of 87.8.

With Mike Iupati in the fold at left guard next to left tackle D.J. Humphries, Pugh will play right guard for the Cardinals alongside free-agent signing Andre Smith at right tackle, and A.Q. Shipley at center.

“Our strength right now is in our offensive line,” coach Steve Wilks said. “I think we have good depth to push one another. Everything we do starts up front.”

Former coach Bruce Arians liked to take a lot of deep shots off seven-step drops with his quarterbacks, but new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy will employ a quicker release game with shorter drops that should help the line and the QBs.
The challenge for the unit, Pugh said, is not health related. It’s about building chemistry with new teammates.

“We know what we have to do,” he said. “We’ve just got to figure out what we are going to call it and get used to where we’re stepping so we’re not stepping on each other’s feet. It’s kind of learning that dance so we’re not messing each other up.

“Every coach has a different way they want it. I’m coming from New York, Andre is coming from Cincinnati, A.Q.’s been here, but with a different coach so we’re all learning this new thing together. The quicker we can get that jelled and that camaraderie, the more successful we’ll be on the field.”

Pugh admitted he was surprised the Giants didn’t try to re-sign him, but he is ready to start a new chapter.

“Luckily the coaching staff and this organization was willing to see what kind of guy I am and see what kind of career I put together and know what I can bring to the table,” he said. “I know what I’m capable of doing and what I’m going to do this year.”

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