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Arizona Cardinals ‘optimistic’ D.J. Humphries can be LT of future

Offensive lineman D.J. Humphries #74 of the Arizona Cardinals spikes the ball for running back Kenyan Drake (not pictured) following Drake's touchdown against the Cleveland Browns during the second half of the NFL football game at State Farm Stadium on December 15, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

Unanimously, members of the Arizona Cardinals offensive line said they wanted to run it back in 2020. The room, most of them said, had a chemistry they hadn’t experienced before.

For linemen, chemistry goes a long way.

Left tackle D.J. Humphries went as far as calling himself Little Michael, as in Michael Jackson of The Jackson 5.

“I’m the youngest so I have to be Little Michael,” he said in December. “And they don’t like that because nobody wants to be Tito, nobody wants to be Jermaine.

“But those are my guys, man. They made this thing so easy this year, made it so fun, made it so refreshing. This is probably my favorite room I’ve ever been a part of. We got to find a way to keep this band together.”

The realistic possibility of returning one of the more promising units from 2019 isn’t so easy.

None of the starting tackles or projected starting tackles for 2019 are under contract for 2020, and neither is center A.Q. Shipley. Only guards Justin Pugh and J.R. Sweezy are locked into deals.

Humphries is the starting point of discussion. He could be looking at a contract that pays out anywhere from $12-16 million per year going into his age-27 season.

The Cardinals have the ability to extend him before he becomes a free agent on March 18.

“I would just say that I’m very optimistic D.J. will return and really proud not only of the way he played but sort of his maturation, the way he’s progressed as a worker, as a leader,” general manager Steve Keim told Doug & Wolf on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

“He’s always loved to play — he’s always been passionate and played hard. I think early on he was a young guy that had to get the big picture. Sean Kugler has been fantastic for that room. Sean Kugler in my opinion is one of the best offensive line coaches in the national football league.”

That sure sounds like a GM who doesn’t want this to reach free agency.

The Cardinals currently have just more than $50 million in cap space, and it’s a wonder if they would be curious about pursuing other tackles in the free agent market. But Keim believes free agency is more of a crap-shoot than the draft.

“You can’t buy a team, you have to draft a team,” he said in general terms, regardless of position. “You have to build chemistry. That’s exactly what we are philosophically: build through the draft, supplement in free agency. And both of them are an inexact science.

“I’ve had our analytics team run the numbers and really 47% of all first-round picks in the last 10 years have succeeded. You look at free agency over the last 10 years, guys who have been paid $5 million and above, which we consider significant contracts, 40% have succeeded.”

Reading between the lines, that makes selecting a starting tackle at No. 8 overall more likely that signing a free agent tackle who didn’t spent 2019 with Arizona.

Those who did — free agents Marcus Gilbert, Jordan Mills and Justin Murray — could all be re-signed for next season as tackle depth.

Murray, for example, quietly made 14 solid starts after he was a waiver-wire addition just before Week 1 and could likely return on a reasonable deal.

As for retaining Humphries, continuity and chemistry would dictate he’s back. Keim knows Arizona could use a franchise and transition tag — this year teams are permitted to use both — but that isn’t ideal. It’d be best for the Cardinals to sign their core players to long-term deals, the GM said.

And even though Humphries entered the NFL on the other side of the line, the Cardinals see him as a starting left tackle.

“So he has that ability (to play right tackle),” Keim said, “but after looking at all the free agents so far and talking to our staff, guys like (director of pro scouting) Adrian Wilson and (director of player personnel) Quentin Harris — Kugs has looked at a lot of those offensive linemen — I think we feel confident that D.J. Humphries has grown into one of the better tackles in the National Football League.”


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