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Sean Kugler: Cardinals’ center job open, Josh Jones could play guard

Mason Cole #52 and Lamont Gaillard #53 at the end of the first half against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on November 29, 2020 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Arizona Cardinals offensive line coach Sean Kugler added to his title this offseason by taking on run-game coordinator duties.

It was not surprising considering he’d already been, in head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s opinion, the go-to guy when it came to designing run game plans. Kugler, who held a Zoom session with reporters on Thursday, downplayed that the promotion changed much of his day-to-day.

“We do this whole thing collectively. It all starts with Coach Kingsbury,” he said. “We all have our input. Even (last year) the way we were preparing the run game, it was a collective input from everybody. That won’t change.

“From my standpoint, how I’ve prepared my entire career to prepare for the run game, the nuts and bolts won’t change. Again, it’s a collective effort.”

Regardless of whether that title change means for his preparation or gameday duties, Kugler already had a full plate this offseason.

His offensive line has free agents on the right side of center, an up-and-down youthful duo at center, and one cut candidate to the left of it.

“We have a lot of good players we feel good about. We have a lot of young players we’re developing that we feel good about. There’s some guys that are on that verge of free agency. Right now, we really just concentrate on the guys who are under contract, getting ready for the year,” Kugler said.

Here are the storylines that Kugler and Kingsbury will be challenged with answering this offseason.

Is the center position an open competition?

Kugler made no bones about the center position being in need of improvement from 2020. Starter Mason Cole went down in Week 1 and was spelled relatively well by second-year pro Lamont Gaillard for two weeks, and Gaillard did enough throughout the year to earn more significant snaps in the final month of the year.

“The center position last year had its ups and downs. Both those guys at times played extremely well … both those guys, they struggled, both being young players,” Kugler said. “The center position overall I think needs to take the next step, to get better.”

The Cardinals, Kugler said, would consider bringing in outside help. If the team finds outside help or not, the job is open.

“The best guy’s going to win that job and that will play out,” Kugler said.

Josh Jones a candidate to play guard

Last year’s third-round pick, Josh Jones, didn’t see a ton of action. He played 55 offensive snaps, mostly as an extra offensive lineman in heavy packages.

Kugler remains high on Jones’ progression behind the scenes, but the offensive line coach did throw out a potential position switch for the tackle in 2021.

“He’s doing a nice job. He got his feet wet last year but he didn’t have to be pushed into a starting role. I think that was good,” Kugler said.

“I thought he handled his rookie year extremely well, not only on the field but in the room. I saw a lot of growth. He’s a very talented young man who likes football … he offers position flexibility. He could play tackle, he could play guard. We’ll see where that goes as we get into the offseason.”

That might suggest the Cardinals could weather a loss of right guard J.R. Sweezy in free agency or even a cut of left guard Justin Pugh, though general manager Steve Keim has spoken highly of Pugh’s performance this past year.

Right tackle Kelvin Beachum, who played well in his first year with the Cardinals, also approaches free agency.

At the very least, Jones could be readied to play multiple positions as a backup.

Still high on Justin Murray

The Cardinals dolled out a midseason extension to backup offensive lineman Justin Murray this past season, and by the end of it, he was no longer a backup.

Murray was the technical starter in seven games when he was healthy and could replace a departed Sweezy at right guard.

“I think he was the most improved player the previous year,” said Kugler of Murray’s 2019 season in which he was the primary starter at right tackle. “We talk about consistency, he was very consistent (in 2020). He was not highly penalized — I think he gave up one sack on the year.

“Now, he’s got a lot of things he’s got to get better at, he knows that but, man, I trust that guy to put in the work to do that. I expect him to get better and better.”

About last season …

The Cardinals were the most-penalized NFL team in 2020, and a good chunk of those issues fell on the offensive line.

“I think we do have the tools in place to be an outstanding offense,” Kugler said. “Coach Kingsbury, he is very creative, and the offense works when it’s rolling. … Consistency is the number one thing we need to improve upon.”

Arizona also ebbed and flowed around an inconsistent rushing attack involving both quarterback Kyler Murray and the running backs.

Kugler suggested the rushing attack didn’t take advantage when teams clamped down on Murray’s zone-read pulls. If you remember, that storyline dominated Arizona for a three-week stretch in the heart of the season.

“Teams, they’re going to try and take away Kyler because he’s such a dynamic player,” Kugler said. “There (are) standards of different ways of trying that, but it also opens up other things as well.

“If that’s their focus, there’s other things we need to get to. Our offense is built around that, it’s built around Kyler’s mobility. He does an outstanding job, he makes the proper reads and if they do the things to take it away, we just need to be efficient enough in other areas where we can handle that and excel.”


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