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Cardinals 2021 lookahead: O-line could have departures on right side

(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

With the Arizona Cardinals missing out on the playoffs having finished 8-8 this year, we’re leaping ahead to — we hope — a relatively standard offseason.

In November, the NFL mapped out a 2021 offseason that officially begins March 17, when free agents can be signed. Then comes the NFL Draft scheduled for April 29 through May 1.

The Cardinals have big roster decisions to make across the board. By looking back at last year, we’re taking a look — by position group — at the personnel decisions ahead for Arizona general manager Steve Keim.

We’ve run down the quarterback, defensive line, receiver, running back, both linebacker positions, tight end and safety.

Let’s dive into the offensive line next.

Players under contract

LT D.J. Humphries ($19,930,000)
LG Justin Pugh ($11,156,250)
C Mason Cole ($1,141,629)
G/T Justin Murray ($2,286,458)
RT Marcus Gilbert ($1,050,000)
C Lamont Gaillard ($897,034)
T Josh Jones ($1,099,851)
T Josh Miles ($868,644)

Free agents

RT Kelvin Beachum
RG J.R. Sweezy
RG Max Garcia

All salary data via Spotrac.com.

The good news

(Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)

The Cardinals offensive line by and large did its job in 2020. The numbers say so, at least.

Could it have been better? Sure.

Arizona set the goal of improving on its rushing attack that averaged a franchise record 5.03 yards per carry in 2019, but that fell off to 4.67 yards per rush this past season. Maybe it wasn’t all on the line.

What was more certain is that the Cardinals offensive line excelled keeping quarterback Kyler Murray off his backside. The second-year pro took 27 sacks compared to the 48 in his rookie season, and certainly his feel for the game was a big reason why.

Still, what the O-line accomplished using a deep position group was proof that offensive line coach Sean Kugler and assistant O-line coach Brian Natkin deserve the praise head coach Kliff Kingsbury and players have sent their way.

Arizona got the best play out of its two starting tackles. Pro Football Focus rated left tackle D.J. Humphries as the fifth-best tackle and gave him the third-best run-blocking grades NFL-wide.

Sports Info Solutions’ total points earned (TPE) statistic favored Kelvin Beachum, a late offseason signing whose addition paid off with expected starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert opting out of the season. Guard Justin Pugh also rated in the top-10 among offensive linemen in Sports Info Solutions’ database.

Problem is, Beachum enters free agency, as does right guard J.R. Sweezy.

The concerns

(Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

The Cardinals were committed to rotating their lineman more frequently than most teams.

Was it to get a strong look at new starting candidates?

Either way, there are decisions to make about whether the status quo is good enough.

The Cardinals said that they went nine deep on their line throughout the season to keep their starters fresh. But with Humphries and Beachum hardly leaving the field as they played well, maybe were there other reasons for the interior to get shaken up.

After Mason Cole injured his hamstring, second-year center Lamont Gaillard held up fairly well in the first three weeks of the year and also got some significant run in Weeks 12 and 13.

Meanwhile, guards Justin Murray and Max Garcia earned snaps throughout the season to keep Pugh and Sweezy fresh. By the end of the year, Sweezy was a backup.

From Week 6 onward, Murray started and played 100% of the available snaps in seven games in which he was healthy. He earned an extension midseason, and whether that’s because the Cardinals see him as a do-it-all backup or because general manager Steve Keim thinks he could be a permanent starter remains to be seen.

Beachum or Sweezy won’t be asking for a Brink’s truck’s worth of cash to re-sign with Arizona, but either veteran could have a long list of suitors as free agents.

The potential that they depart leads us to these quick questions:

— Is Gilbert a viable starter in the case Beachum departs? Gilbert hasn’t played for more than half an NFL regular season since 2016. He appeared for seven games in 2017 and five in 2018, and with the Cardinals he’s only blown out a knee before the regular season began in 2019 and opted out due to coronavirus concerns this past year. That’s a lot of time away from NFL football, and he’s going on 33 years old.

— The guard depth is in a great place if Pugh, Sweezy and Justin Murray are around. That’s a big if. Garcia might be on the way out along with Sweezy, and should the versatile Murray ends up starting, it’s like losing a backup left guard, right guard and right tackle all in one.

— How comfortable are the Cardinals regarding their young tackles? Josh Miles didn’t see the light of day, while third-round pick Josh Jones was eased in in jumbo packages where he was essentially a pass-eligible tight end. His PFF run-blocking grade of 45.4 was no good in 41 snaps — take that with a grain of salt and know that a single game facing the Miami Dolphins tanked his limited sample size. Jones posted a pretty pass-blocking grade (78.3), but that came in only 10 opportunities.


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