Cardinals free agency refresher: O-line could have change at center, right side
The National Football League’s new season officially begins next Wednesday.
League-wide, the Arizona Cardinals have the largest share of 2020 snaps taken by players who will enter free agency this offseason, according to OverTheCap.com. Forty-four percent of the team’s total snaps could be lost in free agency.
General manager Steve Keim will see what he can do to retain many of those players after an 8-8 season. But with spending limited due to a salary cap drop — plus teams expected to be shedding big contracts before free agency — there are many roster decisions to make on the fly.
This series, originally published in January, has been refreshed with any updates before free agency begins.
Players under contract
LT D.J. Humphries ($19,930,000)
LG Justin Pugh ($11,156,250)
C Mason Cole ($1,141,629)
G 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)
RT Kelvin Beachum
RG J.R. Sweezy
RG Max Garcia
The good news
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. Kugler has since earned a promotion to run game coordinator, though his role will largely remain the same.
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 Cardinals were committed to rotating their lineman more frequently than most teams.
Was it to get a strong look at new starting candidates?
At center, Kugler in the past month made it clear there will be an open competition between Mason Cole and Lamont Gaillard. Kugler also suggested Arizona could be looking for a starter in the free agent market.
There are other 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 Cole injured his hamstring, second-year center 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? Does he even want to play in 2021? 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. Kugler recently said that 2020 third-round pick Josh Jones could swing inside to guard, which gives Arizona another option.
— How comfortable are the Cardinals regarding their young tackles? Josh Miles didn’t see the light of day, while Jones was eased into things 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.