Offensive lineman Earl Watford is the Arizona Cardinals’ ‘Swiss Army knife’
TEMPE, Ariz. — When asked what players had stood out during offseason workouts, Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians saved his highest praise for a reserve offensive lineman.
“I thought Earl Watford had a hell of a spring,” he said.
A couple weeks earlier, offensive coordinator/line coach Harold Goodwin called Watford his “Swiss Army knife” because Watford showed the ability to play all five positions along the offensive line, adding the center spot only recently.
“I’ve been doing that,” Watford said, pausing to make air quotes, “unofficially for some time now. That was my little side project, my little test to myself — I have to do this. It’s just something else that I wanted to check off, to give me another opportunity to help this team to win that championship.”
Learning to play center and all that it entails, making the line calls and snapping the ball to the quarterback, had nothing to do with the roster, according to Watford.
Right now A.Q. Shipley is penciled in to be the Cardinals’ starting center with rookie Evan Boehm expected to heighten the competition in training camp. Watford, though, saw enough reps in organized team activities and mini-camp to be included in the mix, perhaps even ahead of Boehm.
“He’s done really well at center,” Goodwin said of Watford. “Kind of shocked me a little bit he’s done well as far as ID’ing the front, making the calls and getting the ball up to Carson (Palmer).”
With Jared Veldheer, Mike Iupati and Evan Mathis locked in at left tackle, left guard and right guard, respectively, center and right tackle are the Cardinals’ two biggest question marks on the offensive line.
D.J. Humphries will be given every opportunity to win the tackle job, but after being inactive all last season, he remains unproven.
Watford made two starts at right tackle in 2015, the first two of his career as he stepped in for the suspended Bobby Massie in Weeks 1 and 2. He also saw time at guard, replacing the injured Iupati in the second quarter at Seattle and then again in the first quarter against Cincinnati.
Watford’s position flexibility makes him very attractive to the Cardinals.
“The more you can do in this league, the better chance you got at sticking on the roster,” Goodwin said.
Added Arians, “We like to only dress seven linemen on Sunday, so if you can play three spots, you have a lot of value in this league; you can play for a long time.”
Watford, who turns 26 later this month, is entering his fourth season, the last under his rookie contract. In other words, 2016 is a big year. Watford, however, wouldn’t admit to it publicly.
“It’s a bigger offseason for the simple fact that it’s the next one,” he said. “I really truly believe in myself. Confidence is at an all-time high, and I feel great and I’m excited about this team and what we can do together. I just got to keep working, keep showing up and whatever happens, happens.”
Watford’s pro career consists of 18 games, with many of those appearances coming on special teams. Last season marked his first significant snaps as an offensive lineman.
Considering the Cardinals used eight different linemen a year ago — Veldheer was the only one to start every game — Watford figures to once again be a major piece to the puzzle.
Of course the goal is to start, but Watford stands at the ready, for whatever position may needed to be filled.
“It was a challenge and I accepted the challenge to be able to do all five. I’ve been here the longest with this staff, so I should be able to know everything,” he said. “That’s what I have to do until I’m officially a starter and will be playing just one position, but right now, the more I can do the better chances will help me be around and stick around a long time. Just embrace it. You can’t be mad at it, whether you’re a starter or not, you just got to keep coming to work, keep showing up and just do what you have to do to help the team win.
“I got to prepare better than everyone else because of the position I’m in and just keep working.”