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Cardinals pre-camp preview: Health, depth concerns loom over O-line

Arizona Cardinals offensive tackle D.J. Humphries (74) lines up against the Chicago Bears during the first half of a preseason NFL football game, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

The Arizona Cardinals report to duty on July 24 and open 2019 training camp with their first practice the following day. To preview the storylines heading into head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s first year on the job, let’s take a look at the roster by position groups.

Maybe the biggest worry regarding the roster comes along the offensive line, where injuries, poor production and failed signings in the past few seasons have bit the Cardinals. Arguably, the offense under Kliff Kingsbury will depend as much on this group as it does on its rookie quarterback and revamped receiving group.


Projected starters

LT: D.J. Humphries

LG: Justin Pugh

C: Mason Cole/A.Q. Shipley

RG: J.R. Sweezy

RT: Marcus Gilbert

Depth

Mason Cole/A.Q. Shipley, Korey Cunningham, Lamont Gaillard, Max Garcia, Jeremy Vujnovich, Rees Odhiambo, Colby Gossett, Joshua Miles, Will Holden, William Sweet, Tariq Cole, Coleman Shelton

Biggest storyline

If the Arizona Cardinals power-rank the top things that could derail their season, the health of the offensive line would probably come in at No. 1. That played a large part last season when Arizona produced one of the most ineffective offensive attacks in recent NFL memory.

Rookie center Mason Cole played all 16 games for Arizona in 2018. He led the Cardinals with 942 offensive snaps last season.

Next-highest in snapcount along the offensive line: D.J. Humphries, who took just 522 offensive snaps and played in nine games on the year. After that, it goes former starting right tackle Andre Smith (426 snaps), who was released after poor play through the first half of the year, and then Oday Aboushi, who took 407 snaps after being picked up halfway through the season. Aboushi left in free agency.

Point being, the Cardinals couldn’t stay healthy in 2018, and there are significant and recent injury histories for everyone on the projected starting depth chart with the exception of Cole and guard J.R. Sweezy.

D.J. Humphries, Justin Pugh, A.Q. Shipley and Marcus Gilbert ended their 2018 seasons on the IR with knee injuries. Backups Korey Cunningham (foot) and Jeremy Vujnovich (hamstring) also saw their season end early. That’s concerning.

Head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense should at least help whoever is on the field.

“This offense is offensive-line friendly,” said right tackle Marcus Gilbert, a trade addition who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers last year. “Just the scheme and the ball going out as fast as it is and guys running all over the field, and you have a quarterback who can throw the ball any direction, any tight spaces … he’s a hell of a runner.”

If the Arizona offense resembles Kingsbury’s up-tempo system at Texas Tech to any degree, quick screens and running backs making catches on high-completion balls in space are the keys.

The offensive line won’t be predictable because the quarterback will have mid-play options. Add in rookie quarterback Kyler Murray’s mobility to the equation, and even on sure passing downs, the rushers won’t be able to pin their ears back and target a statue in the pocket.

X-factor

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The rickety starting lineup aside, perhaps Cardinals general manager Steve Keim’s success in getting competent line play will come in the competitions behind it. Because injuries always happen.

“It’s just the nature of the beast we play,” Pugh said in June. “It’s guys being able to step up and fill in when their number’s called and us being able to compete at a high level no matter who’s out there.”

Can any of the backups do enough to provide relief in case of injury? Could anyone even push that starting unit if they struggle early on?

Veteran guard Max Garcia is coming off his own injury but if healthy is nice insurance. The Cardinals’ 2017 seventh-round pick, Korey Cunningham, showed raw promise at both tackles spots last year and could establish himself as a future option with Humphries in a contract year. Vujnovich and rookie Lamont Gaillard could be second-stringers capable of playing multiple spots, and there will be center depth from whomever of A.Q. Shipley or Mason Cole loses the starting center job. Might Cole even be able to play guard?

Under the radar

— Speaking of that center competition, it’ll be the offensive line battle to watch in camp. Shipley was among the most dependable from 2016-17 before he tore his ACL before the 2018 season. Cole picked things up quickly and earned rave reviews despite moving parts around him. He has a streak of 120 consecutive starts dating back to high school that is on the line. Meanwhile, Shipley has been brash in interviews regarding taking back the starting role.

“Never been more determined in my life to get back,” Shipley said in December. “An injury will do that to you, a year away from the game will do that to you. This was the hardest year on me mentally just because you sit back, you see things, there’s things you want to do, there’s things you want to see. You watch the games and it’s like, you know no matter what, there’s nothing you can do to help on the field.”

— Arizona added another potential depth option when it acquired former Cleveland Browns tackle Desmond Harrison off waivers in June, but he was released after being charged in North Carolina with strangulation and assault on July 17. Harrison started half of his rookie season for the Browns before falling out of the starting lineup.

He said it

“I’d say we’ve improved tremendously, just having everybody healthy again,” Cunningham said. “Everybody’s hungry, we remember last season. We want to put it past us, but we want to build from that so we don’t have to go back there again.”

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