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Then and now: After proving doubters wrong, can Cardinals OL improve?

Offensive guard Justin Pugh #67 of the Arizona Cardinals in action during the NFL game against the Chicago Bears at State Farm Stadium on September 23, 2018 in Glendale, Arizona. The Chicago Bears won 16-14. (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)

The Arizona Cardinals believe they’ve plugged holes and built depth. On paper they look improved, though they’ve yet to hit the practice field due to the coronavirus.

They speak about flashes of offensive brilliance last year, the growth of quarterback Kyler Murray and a thinly manned defense’s improvements to end 2019 as reasons to be optimistic about 2020.

But the biggest reason for optimism is the upgraded roster. How different does this 2020 roster really look compared to the one that began the first training camp under head coach Kliff Kingsbury?

By position, here’s a then-and-now comparison of the roster last offseason next to the current 2020 Cardinals team based on our 2019 July preview series leading into 2019 training camp.


Then

2019 Projected starters

LT: D.J. Humphries

LG: Justin Pugh

C: Mason Cole/A.Q. Shipley

RG: J.R. Sweezy

RT: Marcus Gilbert

Depth

C/OG Mason Cole, C A.Q. Shipley, OT Korey Cunningham, C/OG Lamont Gaillard, G Max Garcia, OG Jeremy Vujnovich, OT Rees Odhiambo, OG Colby Gossett, OT Joshua Miles, OT Will Holden

Biggest storyline: The starters’ health

X-factor: Building depth in case of injuries to starters


Now

2020 projected starters

LT: D.J. Humphries

LG: Justin Pugh

C: Mason Cole

RG: J.R. Sweezy

RT: Marcus Gilbert/Justin Murray

Depth

RT Marcus Gilbert/Justin Murray, OT Josh Jones, G Max Garcia, C/G Lamont Gaillard, OT Josh Miles, OT Brett Toth

Biggest storyline

OT Marcus Gilbert (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

As a group, the offensive line couldn’t have done much more to emphatically swat the concerns about its health back in the face of haters, doubters or skeptics — this reporter included.

Save for a right tackle spot that sustained two season-ending injuries (Marcus Gilbert and Jordan Mills) early on, the line was pretty darn healthy in 2019 and helped put together one of the best rushing seasons (5.0 yards per carry) in franchise history.

Starting left tackle D.J. Humphries earned a nice extension for his performance, but credit is deserved for all the guys to his right as well.

Quarterback Kyler Murray sustained 48 sacks, a top-five total in the NFL, but many of those were his fault and not on the offensive line. That said, expect more passing plays with receiver DeAndre Hopkins in the fold.

So the key for the offensive line in 2020 is again staying healthy and improving on pass protection. Murray’s maturation in the drop-back game should help, of course.

Today, the key battle is no longer at center, where Mason Cole has effectively earned the starting role as A.Q. Shipley remains a free agent. Instead, the question is at right tackle.

Gilbert returns after being, in head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s opinion, the best offensive lineman last training camp. A knee injury ended Gilbert’s season before it began. In the past three seasons with the Cardinals and Steelers, he’s only appeared in 12 games of 48 possible.

Don’t count out right tackle Justin Murray to compete if Gilbert’s history of knee injuries has taken its toll. Murray started 12 games last year and at least should provide depth at tackle or even guard if he doesn’t win a starting spot.

If the line as a whole is relatively healthy, can a second year in a system lead to improvement after a promising 2019?

X-factor

Cardinals rookie OT Josh Jones (Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Murray, who was a waiver addition just before Week 1 of the regular season, brings up another point about the offensive line compared to the group heading into 2019.

We wondered if the starters were healthy but also if the backups who might replace them were even NFL-caliber. Arizona ended up not needing to find out the latter. Now, the depth looks far and away improved with returning players and youth developing under line coach Sean Kugler.

Let’s start with rookie Josh Jones, who could play either tackle spot and came into the 2020 draft with high marks. A potential first-round pick, he fell to Arizona’s third-round choice at 72nd overall. Whomever of Gilbert or Murray doesn’t win the starting job will join with Jones as solid tackle depth.

Guard Max Garcia, an NFL vet, rehabbed a previous injury and got a practice time in at the end of last season. He’s back, too. Additionally, the Cardinals probably feel good about the development of second-year tackle Josh Miles and second-year interior lineman Lamont Gaillard.

All of the aforementioned players appeared in spots without obvious miscues last year.

The 180-degree turnaround from 2018 wasn’t just about health. The Cardinals should at least not be thrown into panic mode if the starters’ healthy streaks are snapped.


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