TEMPE, Ariz. — Three years and 1,500 miles removed from the Olivia and Archie Manning Athletics Performance Center, two former Ole Miss teammates are once again paired along the same offensive line.
One was a highly-touted prospect taken in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft after forgoing his senior season.
The other was bypassed by all 32 teams in the same draft, yet managed to log 12 starts over his first two seasons in the league.
For Bobby Massie and Bradley Sowell, their paths to the forefront of the Arizona Cardinals’ starting right tackle competition are very different. However, their objective this offseason is the same.
Beat the other out.
The edge would seemingly favor the former, Massie, as he starred at right tackle in Oxford, making starts in each of his final 29 collegiate contests.
As a rookie, the former No. 112 overall pick extended that starting streak in Arizona, protecting four different quarterbacks over a 16-game stretch.
But with that experience came plenty of pitfalls.
Over his first seven games in 2012, Massie was responsible for 47 pressures, 33 hurries, 12 sacks and two quarterback hits. While his play improved dramatically — 14 total pressures — in the second half, the damage had already been done.
At the campaign’s conclusion, the regime responsible for drafting him was handed it walking papers.
And in 2013, he was more of a bystander than a contributor, playing in just eight games — as veteran Eric Winston was signed shortly before training camp and quickly assumed the starting right tackle position.
“I played in the SEC and played real well there,” Massie said. “I came in [to the NFL] with the same mindset that I went through college with. But, it ain’t like that. I just had to learn how to become a professional.
“I thought I was going to go out there and do the same thing on Sundays that I had done on Saturdays. It didn’t work out like that obviously. I had to work on my craft more and get into the playbook harder than what I was doing. It’s turned things around for me.”
Although to this point the Cardinals haven’t brought back Winston, the job will by no means be handed to the suddenly-enlightened Massie.
To claim it, he’ll have to go head-to-head with a familiar face — one the current coaching staff knows well.
While Sowell didn’t hear his name called by either Roger Goodell or Ray Anderson, the undrafted free agent made quite an impression on the Colts after the organization claimed him off the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ practice squad in Sept. 2012.
A three-year starting left tackle at Ole Miss, Sowell became an asset under then-Indianapolis offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and offensive line coach Harold Goodwin because of his ability to play on both sides of the line.
And while the Colts didn’t retain Sowell, who appeared in 10 games as a rookie, after their run to the postseason, Arians and Cardinals general manager Steve Keim saw a fit in the Valley for the 24-year-old.
After trading former No. 5 overall pick Levi Brown to the Pittsburgh Steelers last October, Arizona called on the Hernando, Miss. native to fill the void at left tackle.
The 6-foot-7 lineman battled with inconsistency during his 12 starts and finished the year as the lowest-rated offensive tackle by Pro Football Focus, but his versatility kept him in town.
“Kind of after the last game they said that they were probably going to bring in a left tackle, so get ready for the right side,” Sowell said. “I kind of knew it and anticipated it. I played a little right tackle with the Colts with them, so I knew they trusted me over there.
“I don’t care what I play out here. I don’t care if it’s tight end or whatever. I’ll play wherever as long as I get on the field. I’m not one of those guys who has a preference or has the right to have a preference. I’m glad to be in the NFL. I’m glad to be on this team.”
It’s one thing to be on the team, it’s quite another to be a reliable starter week in and week out.
While both have experienced a taste of that kind of responsibility, neither Massie or Sowell have proven in the infant stages of their respective careers that they’re ready to handle the role on a full-time basis.
Asked what he’s looking for out both challengers this summer, Goodwin, now the Cardinals offensive coordinator, was quite candid.
“I’m looking for a guy who knows what he’s doing,” he said. “The second thing I want to see is can the guy pass protect. We have to do a better job this year of protecting Carson [Palmer] and making sure he stays upright.”
And, as Arians added, intelligence could go a long way towards determining the victor.
“No mental errors,” said the Cardinals’ second-year coach as to what he expects to see from Massie. “Don’t let a blitzer loose off the edge that he’s responsible for. Making the proper calls. It’s just like what I expect from Bradley.”
Those expectations are not lost on Massie, who admitted after Tuesday’s Offseason Training Activity (OTA) session that while he embraces the competition with his former linemate, it’s more or less a zero-sum game.
Only one of them can start.
“The only way to look at this is that if they don’t like what you’re doing, they’re going to find someone else to do it,” said Massie. “That’s my mindset.”
Sowell’s mindset is not a whole lot different, but he noted that their friendship makes the competition much more bearable.
“It’s a friendly competition,” said Sowell. “We both know that we have to do our best to win the job. But, we’ve been friends for a while. We don’t hate each other. We know the coaches are going to make the decision. Our play is going to basically determine who is going to be the starter. We’re not going to hate each other. We’re going to help each other out. We’re both going to be Cardinals. We just want to win the championship.
“We’ll help each other with technique, and yeah we’ll pass along notes as well. If one guy messes up then all the coaches will be pissed. You don’t want that. It just messes it up for everybody. We’ll help each other out as best we can and may the best man win.”
Their play will ultimately speak for itself, however as Sowell revealed, the two are not shy about trading jabs to lighten the mood.
“We can be real honest with one another. If it was a guy I didn’t know as well it would be real awkward, but me and Bobby every day are straight with each other like, ‘I’m going to beat you out.’ We just say it straight up to each other. It’s nice to be comfortable with someone and talk crap and have a little fun with it as well.”