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Cardinals O-line depth stands out midway through 2019

The Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals line up at the line of scrimmage during the first half of the NFL football game at Paul Brown Stadium on October 06, 2019 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Bryan Woolston/Getty Images)

TEMPE, Ariz. — The true measure of the Arizona Cardinals offensive line wasn’t about how the starters performed.

Each of the projected first-teamers heading into 2019 had proof of production on their resumes. Recent injuries, however, put apprehension behind projecting success from a lineup of D.J. Humphries, Justin Pugh, A.Q. Shipley, J.R. Sweezy and Marcus Gilbert.

Success for the Cardinals O-line was about how its play would hold up once injuries hit.

More than halfway through 2019, so far, so good.

Gilbert’s knee injury ended his season before it began, and the same bug bit replacement Jordan Mills. Inexperienced Justin Murray filled in before Mills’ signing and after Mills’ injury, but Murray’s current knee issue puts him as a gametime decision before the Cardinals face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.

Yet, here Arizona stands in Week 10 somehow feeling good about its depth.

“I think it’s been really helpful for us,” said Mason Cole, who started every game at center last year and didn’t make a start until he stepped into the starting left guard spot last week.

“Justin Murray coming in here and stepping up and playing really well, and same with Jordan Mills. Justin Pugh playing tackle. It’s been really good having this depth in the room.”

Pugh, the regular starting left guard, took over the starting right tackle spot upon Murray’s injury last week, and his versatility and that of Cole’s has allowed the Cardinals to remain afloat despite being down three right tackles last week against the San Francisco 49ers.

Pro Football Focus graded Pugh and Cole, who were playing out of their natural positions, second- and third-best among the team’s offensive players. Behind the line, running back Kenyan Drake led the way for the Cardinals with 110 rushing yards.

Throw in free agent guard Max Garcia, who came off the physically unable to perform (PUP) list this week, and there’s another experienced body ready to go if even another injury strikes.

“We wanted to make sure he was 100% and could play when he came back,” Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury said of Garcia. “We feel like he’s in that place. He would be in soon if something were to happen to one of those guys.”

Garcia has practiced for three weeks but until Tuesday didn’t know where he stood as a deadline loomed for Arizona to place him on the active roster. He credited head athletic trainer Tom Reed and strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris for working him back from an ACL tear suffered when he was a member of the Denver Broncos last November.

“Just making it to this level is a feat within itself,” Garcia said. “To come back from injury and to be back out there, that’s probably one of the coolest things I’ve done in this journey.

“Once free agency hit, I had no idea where I was going to be, what was happening. There was a lot of ifs, there was a lot of unknown. I felt like whatever was going to happen was going to happen and I knew that I could just trust God that I would be at the right place and right time. I will forever be grateful for Arizona giving me another chance, especially being injured and taking a chance signing me.”

As for looking down the road, Kingsbury said that the team will consider keeping Pugh at right tackle considering he graded out well last week in a 28-25 loss to the 49ers, against a formidable front no less.

If Murray can’t go this week, that will certainly be Pugh’s job again.

“The one thing about Justin is obviously he’s not a selfish player,” GM Steve Keim told Doug & Wolf on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station. “But when he was signed, the one thing that I did tell him is we were going to put him at guard and we were going to keep him there, because that was one of his concerns in free agency (in 2018) to make sure that he stayed in one spot.

“So I felt bad, but at the same time, he’s a team guy and it certainly showed a lot about his character that he didn’t have a problem jumping out there to right tackle, and did a good job.”

DB rotation up in air

— With nickelback Tramaine Brock Sr. ruled out due to a hamstring injury against the Buccaneers, Kingsbury said corner Kevin Peterson will play a bigger role in the rotation.

How that rotation looks remains to be seen.

Patrick Peterson will stick at corner to face Bucs receivers Mike Evans and perhaps Chris Godwin as well, while rookie Byron Murphy could switch into the slot or remain at cornerback. Arizona also elevated Chris Jones from the practice squad on Friday, giving the team another body.

Kingsbury seemed to suggest safety Budda Baker will remain at safety rather than return to the slot, where he played last year. It makes that more likely considering rookie safety Deionte Thompson appeared on the injury report for the first time Friday and is questionable to play Sunday with a knee injury.

“Budda is capable. You know, we have some other options, possibly Byron Murphy stepping in there,” Kingsbury said, “but Budda, he’s playing so well where we have him, you’d hate to move him — but he can definitely do it if we need him to.”

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