Arizona Cardinals betting big on offensive line in 2019

Sep 5, 2019, 6:32 AM | Updated: 11:44 am
Kyler Murray #1 of the Arizona Cardinals hands off the ball in the first quarter of pre-season play...
Kyler Murray #1 of the Arizona Cardinals hands off the ball in the first quarter of pre-season play against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium on August 24, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)
(Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Rookie quarterback Kyler Murray won’t shine. Kliff Kingsbury won’t become the NFL’s first successful product of the Air Raid coaching tree.

Larry Fitzgerald won’t have a golden year at 36 years old, Christian Kirk won’t become a household name and David Johnson won’t look like 2016 David Johnson.

Not if the Arizona Cardinals offensive line can’t prove people wrong.

For better or worse, that group more than any other could swing the 2019 season. As is, it’s also the one with the most red flags.

Pro Football Focus ranked the unit 30th out of 32 NFL teams. An anonymous NFL executive told The Athletic’s Mike Sando that Arizona is one Jadeveon Clowney hit on Murray from flushing the season down the toilet bowl. He was worried because of the offensive line.

Cardinals general manager Steve Keim is playing with a risky poker hand.

Four offensive line starters finished 2018 on the injured reserve and none of those four played more than nine games. One is switching positions.

More than that, the depth is a concern with 41 combined games of NFL experience among the six backups who could play in Week 1. Just two of those come at tackle, where seventh-round pick Josh Miles is joined by Brett Toth and Justin Murray, two waiver pickups who will have only a week to learn the system by Sunday’s opener against the Detroit Lions.

Is that a concern?

“It’s not. It wasn’t prior to this week either,” Kingsbury said Wednesday.

The Cardinals speak confidently about their group.

To be fair they have their reasons. The first of which: As of Wednesday, their starting linemen had their health.

Keim took a logical route this offseason when free agency began, targeting experienced players.

He traded for right tackle Marcus Gilbert and signed free agent guards J.R. Sweezy and Max Garcia, leaving the draft to sort out his skill position holes. Even there, Keim sought value in the later rounds, selecting guard/center Lamont Gaillard out of SEC powerhouse Georgia and drafting a raw Morgan State prospect in Miles.

There is still a lot of risk in all this.

Projected starters D.J. Humphries, Justin Pugh and A.Q. Shipley all finished 2018 on the injured reserve for Arizona. Shipley is coming off an ACL injury, while the other two on the center’s left side of the line have found their careers sidetracked by injuries of late. At right tackle, Gilbert (knee) played just five games for the Pittsburgh Steelers last season.

Take all of that into account, and it’s what made the Cardinals’ moves following the draft eyebrow-raising.

Arizona’s apparent swing tackle throughout camp, Korey Cunningham, was shipped to New England for a draft pick, and fellow tackle Rees Odhiambo was released due to injury.

What gave Arizona all this confidence that their starters would stay healthy and their backups will be prepared to step in right away?

To answer that first question, well, the team took an overly-cautious approach with the health of their linemen in training camp and the preseason. They held out Pugh at left guard for much of the preseason due to a minor shoulder injury and gave weekly days off to Humphries, Shipley and Gilbert.

As for the second-stringers, Miles played in a more run-heavy RPO-offense at Morgan State, and he made big strides toward the end of the preseason. His learning curve played a part in Arizona trading Cunningham and having the confidence to add more tackle depth with untested pros like Justin Murray and Toth.

“(Morgan State ran) a similar offense to this. Once I was able to connect those key concepts, that’s when it really clicked for me,” Miles said Wednesday.

“Learning the plays wasn’t the easiest thing for me at first. I’ve come along really well with that. I’m still learning, I’m still growing.”

Justin Murray has just two games of experience with the Oakland Raiders in 2018, and Toth didn’t even play football last year. He was working as a grad assistant at his alma mater, Army, before receiving clearance from the government to chase a football career with the Eagles in August.

The offseason hiring of renowned offensive line coach Sean Kugler, plus the confidence in guard/center Mason Cole, who started 16 games as a rookie center last year, also played their roles in allowing Keim to take chances in relying upon younger players.

Kingsbury called Cole, “maybe the most valuable O-lineman we have,” last week when Shipley, a captain, was named the starter.

“I think it’s something new for me, something new that I’ll have to learn how prepare for,” Cole said of becoming a swing guard/center.

“I obviously have a lot of respect for A.Q. and the guys in the room. I understand (the new role). I learned from A.Q. (in 2018) where he was really in the room and helped this team (while injured). For me it’s been ‘How can I help this team?'”

Shipley knows how hard he, Pugh and Humphries have worked to rehab and stay healthy. He can only assume newcomers Sweezy and Gilbert will be there for the long haul as well.

As a captain would, he did not express concern about the offensive line inexperience behind the group of starters.

“Making a 53-man roster is hard enough. The guys who are still here are here for a reason,” Shipley said.

“Once you take a look at the magnitude and just … it’s Week 1 of the NFL, I think once you get past that point for a lot of these guys, it’s just going to be another day at the office. Just like all of us, we haven’t played a game in a while, either.”

Extra points

— Kingsbury said the always-steady Kyler Murray isn’t the type of player to bring “rainbows and sunshine,” or cupcakes after practice. Asked by if anyone else does bring cupcakes, it was pointed out that cornerback Patrick Peterson, who is suspended for the first six games, brought an ice cream truck to practice for his teammates.

“It’s the least he could do since he’s leaving us for six weeks,” Kingsbury quipped.

— Starting linebacker Haason Reddick said the coaches and training staff have yet to lock down his role and availability for the opener Sunday. He’s hoping to avoid any setbacks. That said, Kingsbury said Reddick “will be out there. I don’t know what his role will be in the game.”

— Kingsbury appeared less sure about the availability of receiver Michael Crabtree, who is playing catchup learning the offense after signing two weeks ago.

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