TEMPE, Ariz. – John Wetzel has waited for this opportunity for four years. For Earl Watford, the opportunity couldn’t come at a better time.
Say hello to the Arizona Cardinals’ two new starting guards.
Wetzel is expected to replace Mike Iupati at left guard, while Watford will take Evan Mathis’ spot on the right side of the offensive line when the Cardinals host the New York Jets on Monday Night Football.
Both Iupati and Mathis suffered ankle sprains in San Francisco.
Iupati is due back, though it’s unknown when. He did not practice for a second straight day Thursday, but he is out of his walking boot, according to head coach Bruce Arians.
Mathis is likely done for the season. He needs surgery, and the team placed him on injured reserve last weekend.
This will be Wetzel’s first career NFL start. Last week against the 49ers marked his first significant game action, playing 29 snaps after Iupati exited early in the third quarter.
“It felt great. Finally, all the hard work and stuff I put in came out,” Wetzel said. “I always pride myself on just being ready, especially this year. It felt good getting out there and contributing to the team and helping get a win.”
Undrafted coming out of Boston College in 2013, Wetzel signed with the Raiders but was later released in training camp. Three months later, the Cowboys added him to their practice squad, and that’s where he spent the remainder of that season, all of 2014 and the start of 2015. Then came a brief stint on the Colts practice squad, before he joined the Cardinals last December.
Throughout all of his NFL travels, Wetzel played mostly tackle. It’s the position he played in college.
“It wasn’t as bad a transition as I thought it would be,” he said of playing guard, which is where he started to rep in practice a few weeks ago. “There’s less space out there inside. When you’re outside you’ve got more room to work it. Inside, you’ve got to get your hands on people faster. You’re going against different kind of guys.”
Count quarterback Carson Palmer among those impressed by Wetzel’s positional flexibility.
“I can only relate it to like asking me to go play tailback maybe, which would not be pretty, but I can’t imagine. You’re in one stance for so long, then you’re in a different stance and then you’re playing a different position entirely. Everybody thinks, ‘well, it’s offensive line.’ No, it’s not offensive line. There are three very different, specific positions along the offensive front,” he said.
“Everybody’s watching him play in practice and the scout team and just looking at him physically, he’s got size. He’s a great athlete. So, you don’t want to be in a position where he has to play, but it’s very comforting knowing he’s coming in to play.”
Wetzel performed well enough last week to earn himself a game ball, the only one handed out to an offensive player.
Watford, too, was praised for his play.
“They knew exactly what they had to do when they were coming in,” said running back David Johnson, who had 92 of his 157 rushing yards in the second half. “I still ended up getting yards, so they came out and helped out the team.”
Watford filled in for Mathis once already this season, getting a Week-3 start in Buffalo.
Watford, dubbed “Swiss Army Knife” for his ability to play all five offensive line positions, is now expected to be the starting right guard for the balance of the season.
“It’s a lot easier on the mind. Preparation is no different. You definitely get more reps, but it’s just easier on the brain,” he said. “You’ve got one focus, you’ve got one task to worry about and you don’t have to worry about, ‘man, if he go down or he go down I got to figure out which one I got to get ready for’. It’s just a lot more calm is how I can put it. I feel at ease a little bit. I can get more comfortable at one position and go in there and just focus on that.”
What Watford is not focused on is his contract, or so he says.
Watford is in the final year of his four-year rookie deal, so playing time is paramount in order to enhance his value on the open market come free agency.
“My focus is not on the offseason. My focus since Day 1 has been, play,” he said. “We’re trying to get wins and make it to the postseason. Right now, my main focus is the Jets. Nothing in my mind is thinking about what’s going on in the offseason. I’m not worried about that, at all.”
With the Jets coming to town, the task ahead for Wetzel and Watford will be vastly different than the week prior.
“Yeah, they’ve got their hands full,” Arians said. “They were uncovered for most of the game in San Francisco, blocking linebackers. They’re going to have big, strong dudes on top of them this game.”
The Jets’ front four of Sheldon Richardson, Steve McLendon, Muhammad Wilkerson and Leonard Williams, is among the better units in the league. Richardson, Wilkerson and Williams are all former first-round picks.
Together, they anchor a defense that has allowed the fourth-fewest rushing yards and rank second in both rushing yards per attempt (3.0) and rushing yards per game (68.4).
“We’ve seen good D-lines before, so nothing’s different,” offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said. “We’re going to run the same plays. You’re going to see 22, 23-double; you’re going to see outside zone. It’s all about getting on our man and staying on our man and finishing blocks. Just make sure all 11 guys are on the same page. We’ll be OK.”
Certainly, changing out two-fifths of the offensive line five weeks into the season, or at any point in the season, is not ideal. It has made the spotlight, however, a bit brighter on the position as the Cardinals look to reach the .500-mark.
“It’s only a big deal for people who have not really followed what this team is made up of, that next-man-up mentality. Everyone being ready, everybody playing different positions,” Watford said. “We’ve done a good job of just trying to learn everything and take in as much as possible to be ready. There will be no lag in play. There should be no excuses.”