Who will be the Cardinals’ starting center in 2023?

May 9, 2023, 7:23 AM

Jon Gaines II could be an option at center for the Cardinals...

UCLA Bruins offensive lineman Jon Gaines II (57) during a college football game between the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors against the UCLA Bruins on August 28, 2021, at The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA. (Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

(Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

TEMPE — When the Arizona Cardinals offensive line takes the field in Week 1, we’ll likely see three returning 2022 opening-day starters in D.J. Humphries, Kelvin Beachum and Will Hernandez.

But there’s a lot left undecided when it comes to center and left guard, following the departures of Rodney Hudson (retirement) and Justin Pugh (free agency).

That’s not to say Arizona doesn’t currently have in-house options to consider, specifically at center.

Finding that missing piece should be high up on the to-do list for new head coach Jonathan Gannon and first-year general manager Monti Ossenfort.

“We’ll sort that out just like all the other positions to see what’s the best combination of people, who’s comfortable doing what they need to do from the center position and both guard positions,” Gannon said. “I like where (the center spot) is at right now.”

A look at some of the candidates for the job:

The leader in the clubhouse?

It’s early, but Hjalte Froholdt appears to have at least made an early impression on Gannon.

The 6-foot-5, 310-pounder is entering his fourth NFL season and first with the Cardinals after signing a two-year deal with Arizona this offseason.

He comes over following two seasons with the Cleveland Browns already having some familiarity with new Cardinals offensive coordinator Drew Petzing. The OC served as Cleveland’s tight ends coach (2021) and quarterbacks coach (2022) while Froholdt was a member of the Browns.

“(Froholdt’s) done a really good job for us in there these last couple weeks here and we’ll continue to evaluate that as we get going,” Gannon said Tuesday.

Though relatively fresh when it comes to the position, Froholdt does have five starts under his belt after injuries to Browns OLs Ethan Pocic, Nick Harris and Michael Dunn elevated the fourth-string option front and center, no pun intended.

Of his 583 offensive line snaps, 383 came from the middle of the line.

That didn’t take long

When the Cardinals nabbed 2023 fourth-round draft pick and versatile lineman Jon Gaines II out of UCLA, it was easy to connect the dots.

After Gannon name-dropped him Tuesday, it was even more evident: Arizona believes Gaines possesses the versatility to be a legitimate option at center.

The 6-foot-4, 303-pounder joins the Cardinals after five seasons at UCLA where he was used mostly at guard but did see some time at center.

“I started two games at center in 2021 against LSU and Hawaii. Then I played a little bit of center the year before in three other games in the COVID year,” Gaines said via teleconference after he was drafted. “Then during the East-West (Shrine Bowl) I was trying to show my versatility. I played left guard and center, two positions that I hadn’t played in years.

“Obviously, I was able to leave a good impression since we’re on this call now. So, it’s just a blessing to play a lot of different positions and I’m excited to add wherever I can.”

Look out for Gaines to really make a run at the starting gig.

The darkhorse

A returning name to keep an eye on is second-year pro Lecitus Smith.

He didn’t get any game reps at the position but was in the mix as an option when Arizona was searching for depth with Rodney Hudson’s health up in the air.

The 6-foot-3, 320-pound Smith played in 10 games last season. He saw 30% of the team’s available offensive snaps (209).

Mr. Outside Hire

Let’s be real, it’s still very early in the process of roster construction for not only the Cardinals but the rest of the NFL.

More players will be signed. More players will be released.

The Cardinals have two outside options at this point: scour the free-agent market for veterans looking for a new home or stay in wait-and-see mode until later on this offseason.

In a perfect world, nailing down the center spot by training camp (or at least having an idea) is the goal.

But given the mass exodus of cuts that come with the final days of camp, there will surely be more options — both young and old — to choose from if the in-house candidates aren’t panning out as expected.

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Who will be the Cardinals’ starting center in 2023?