Cardinals C Mason Cole, like his fellow rookies, taking 1st-year lumps
TEMPE, Ariz. — Mason Cole begins the second half of his first NFL season with his streak still going.
He’s started 112 consecutive games along the offensive line, the last eight as a rookie center for the Arizona Cardinals.
This year’s results aside, that doesn’t happen by accident.
Cole’s intellect, like that of quarterback Josh Rosen, receiver Christian Kirk and running back Chase Edmonds, has taken him far. And like those fellow rookies, it’s been a half-season of battling, winning and often times losing.
“I think it’s been, obviously, a lot of learning lessons,” Cole said. “That’s kind of my goal going into the season, I knew there’d be some ups and downs. But as long as I can get better every week, it’d be positive for me.”
If anything, Cole has seen no shortage of action.
Under fired offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and one week of new OC Byron Leftwich, the Cardinals haven’t been shy putting the third-round pick out of Michigan right in the action. Arizona has run the ball 99 times this year around the center spot, according to Sharp Football Stats. That’s the most up-the-middle runs in the NFL by 14 carries.
“They’re capable,” Leftwich said of Arizona’s offensive rookies. “I mean, we’re not throwing them in because we have nobody else.
“Mason’s a smart kid. We all know besides quarterback, center’s one of the most difficult positions to play in this league, especially when you got to make the calls that you got to call and you turn around and there’s a rookie. That’s what you like about it. They’re growing together, they’re on the same page most of the time and we’re trying to build on that.”
The raw numbers, unsurprisingly, aren’t pretty. The Cardinals are averaging just 3.3 yards per attempt up the middle for a success rate of 32 percent.
Pro Football Focus has recorded 17 pressures allowed in pass coverage by Cole, a fourth-worst mark, and rates him 32nd out of 35 centers who have played more than 200 snaps.
It’s not dissimilar from the growing pains experienced by the man he’s snapping the ball to in Rosen.
Veteran center A.Q. Shipley’s season-ending ACL injury at the start of training camp thrust Cole in this position and added to Arizona’s struggles with familiarity with a new center and right side of the offensive line.
Yet, that Cole is the only rookie center in this position bodes well for the future.
He’s seen live NFL defenses and complicated ones at that, including the complex schemes of the blitz-happy Minnesota Vikings. And he has a seven-year veteran in Shipley, plus four first-round picks starting beside him who can lend their advice.
“I think in terms of just knowing defenses a little better and seeing so many different defenses has been big for me,” Cole said.
And maybe the 6-foot-5, 292-pound rookie could stand to improve physically if the statistical evaluation of his first eight games is to get better.
Numbers aside, the man who drafted Cole, Cardinals general manager Steve Keim, doesn’t see any reason for concern. He seems pleased with where Cole stands heading into a Week 10 game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
“I think Mason has done an outstanding job, as difficult as that is as a rookie,” Keim told Doug & Wolf on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station. “He’s continued to grow and get better as well.
“There are things from a strength standpoint where as a young player he’s going to continue to get bigger and stronger. But there are some things that he does — whether it’s reaching the play-side number or climbing to the second level — where you can tell he’s going to be a very, very good player for years to come because he is so consistent and he really does understand leverage and technique and angles and all those sort of things that make centers very good players.”