May 10, 2013; Tempe, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals guard Jonathan Cooper (61) leads the line out of a huddle during rookie minicamp at the Cardinals Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona Cardinals: Youth Will Be Served on the Offensive Line

May 10, 2013; Tempe, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals guard Jonathan Cooper (61) shoves defenders during Rookie Minicamp at the Cardinals Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

I was going to open this article up with witticisms about how truly offensive the line play was last year in Arizona. And after starring at the number 58 on a blank screen for about twenty minutes I thought it best to throw all that away. The Cardinals’ line was beyond bad last year so much so that the pun I had planned to use to open the article was too good to be associated with their play. The Arizona Cardinals gave up a league high 58 sacks last year and ranked 31st against the run. That’s not just bad; that’s historically ugly.

Sure, injuries played a part, as one down starter turned to two, and by the end of the year that number rose to three. I personally don’t know a team in the league National Football League that could take those kind of losses and not struggle to perform even the most routine tasks. Steve Keim and Bruce Arians were dealt quite the hand when it came to reshaping this truly offensive line. (Ha, I still got the pun in). With all the press this horrible line has received, let’s take a deeper look and see what the truth is.

With all the talk about the struggles of the Cardinals’ young tackles, a closer look showed the real troubles to be on the interior of the line especially when factoring in injuries to Levi Brown and the late season development of 2012 fourth-round draft pick Bobby Massie. Though many wanted the Cardinals to target a tackle in the draft, adding a true blue-chip talent like Johnathan Cooper in the first round will go a long way in improving this offensive line.

The additions of Cooper, who will start right away, presumably at left guard, and Earl Watford, who has enormous potential and could earn his place in the starting line up early in the year, will provide a big boost. The big test for Watford will be the level of competition. After playing four years at James Madison, Watford has had limited experience against the elite level of pass rushers that he will see at the NFL level. But one thing he is not lacking is the physical ability, which could lead to playing time. One thing is for sure; with Arians calling the shots, youth will be served.

Baptism by fire just sounds painful, and anyone who suffered through watching the line play of the Cardinals in 2012 witnessed just how painful that can be. In the 2012 draft, the front office combo of Rod Graves and Ken Whisenhunt set out to rebuild the depth of the offensive line using 3 late round picks to snatch up developmental players. The key words used so far are depth and developmental. The trio of Massie, Senio Kelemente, and Nate Potter were never meant to see the field right away but due to injuries all three were pressed into service at some point during the season.

For Massie, the first eight games of 2012 probably still leave him awake at night. There is no way to sugarcoat just how bad his play was. After surrendering a league high 12 sacks in his first 8 games and being rated by Pro Football Focus as the worst starting tackle in the NFL something changed in Massie. As Massie rededicated himself to his craft he began to see the fruits of all his labor finishing the season allowing only one sack in the last 8 games of the season and constantly ranking in the top 15 tackles in the league according to Pro Football Focus.

After limping through the first 7 games on the sideline with what was later found to be a high ankle sprain seventh round pick Nate Potter finally got his shot at left tackle. Maybe it was the abysmal play of D’Anthony Batiste or maybe it was his cohesion with fellow Boise state alum in Daryn Colledge. Whatever the case, Potter’s play seemed at the time to be almost revolutionary. Potter, however, was by no means ready to start in the NFL.

Nov. 25, 2012; Glendale, AZ, USA: Arizona Cardinals tackle Nate Potter (76) against the St. Louis Rams at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Potter showed the quick feet needed to hold his ground against some of the top edge rushers in the league but seemed at times to get beat by power rushers and was especially susceptible speed to power rushes. In these moves the outside rusher takes the outside shoulder of the tackle and sets like he is going to use his speed to “bend the edge.” However, once the tackle is into his “kick step” and has taken his outside position, the pass rusher uses his strength to drive the tackle back inside to the quarterback.

The good news as it relates to Potter was his ability to mirror. The spin move, another popular technique, also uses the rusher’s outside bend and speed to set up a move back inside, leaving the tackle overextended and exposed. This was something that Potter seemed to handle with relative ease due to his lateral agility.  Strength is something that can be added,though, especially when your organization has the number one strength and conditioning coach in the world in John Lott.

Kelemente was in a tough position last year. After playing four years at tackle in college Kelemente was tasked with learning to play on the interior of the line, Compounding this transition was the fact that the previous regime limited in both the number of coaches and available time to prepare for the future being in a must win situation. By the end of the year due to the outbreak of the injury bug along the offensive line Kelemente got his shot for in game action. Kelemente showed he does have the ability to play inside and although he can become overextended when digging in for his anchor and his movements need to become more refined if he is going to succeed on the interior. The initial reports from camp have Kelemente working even further inside at the center position. If developed Kelemente versatility along the offensive front should allow him to dress for action on Sundays and eventually he should push his way into the lineup.

Triumphant return:

In the third game of the 2012 preseason, on what seemed to be a normal play, Levi Brown took a knee without notice and was subsequently escorted to the locker room. That would be the last time for the season Cardinal fans would see Brown in uniform. When reports of the severity of the injury came out it seemed almost unfathomable that Brown was able to get off of the field under his own strength. Brown had torn his triceps muscle, torn it so badly in fact that he removed fragments of the bone it was attached to with it.

Levi Brown has not played up to his first round pedigree; in the end very few do. The conventional wisdom from most fans as it pertains to Brown is that he lacks the lateral agility to play tackle, especially on the left side. Because of his aggressiveness in the run game most fans tend to think that Brown is best suited on the inside at guard. While I don’t disagree with the sentiment, I don’t see Brown moving inside in his time with the Cardinals. Levi shows the power and agility to block down defensive linemen and turn his opponent.

Brown also moves well, for his size, in space. The myth about Brown and his lateral agility to me is more based of off being played outside of a scheme that his style of play would be suited for and forced into a system that left him checking for inside assignments and exposed on the end. I do, however feel that with the changing tide in the NFL where expensive veterans are being replaced by journeymen on one year deals or talented high round rookie draft picks, that this will be Brown’s last year in Arizona, that is,  without significantly reducing his contract.

Lyle Sendlein is an overachiever. Undrafted out of Texas he has raised to be a top tear center in this league. Described by his teammates as the heart of the offensive line Sendlein is not the most gifted physical specimen but makes up for his deficiencies with his workman like attitude and his love of the game. Lyle will be an integral part to the offensive line group with both his play as well as his veteran leadership.

Daryn Colledge is another versatile interior linemen who has been among the best in recent years to wear Cardinal Red. Colledge is however coming to the end of a very expensive contract that could leave him looking for work sooner rather than later. His versatility may be his saving grace as he is more than able to play on either side of the line at the guard position. As he gets older and begins to lose some of that agility that is needed to pull and mirror he could move all the way inside to Center. A position he gained experience at during his time with the Green Bay Packers.

All together now:

Bruce Arians is a big believer in the thought that coaches are teachers first. The staff he has assembled is loaded with decades of football knowledge met with decades of on field experience. The overall increase in number of coaches allows for more one on one interaction in practice which is crucial when you are talking about the youth that now encompasses the Cardinals offensive line.

When pressed as to what type of run scheme he will operate in Arizona, Arians has done a good job in choosing his words carefully. Saying things like its players first and scheme second. To long term fans these words are a breath of fresh air. After years of trying to fit square pegs into round holes because “the scheme works” hearing a coach say that he is going to adapt is enough to make any Cardinals fan heart warm.

Action always speak louder than words and if you look at the moves made so far it looks as though the cardinals are headed to a run scheme that incorporates more zone concepts. Zone blocking allows linemen to reach the second level creating cut back lanes for the back. This scheme allows for athletic offensive linemen to get up field and sustain blocks against smaller opponents.

For years the Achilles heal of the cardinals has been the guys along the offensive line. Even when Kurt Warner led this franchise to back to back division championships there were questions after what seemed to be every game whether the monster hit Warner took would be his last. This of course peeked for Kurt with the New Orleans game in the playoffs and for the Cardinals organization last year after surrendering 58 sacks. You can directly trace the inept play on the offensive line to the regime change that has taken place this year.

In his first press conference as the newly minted general manager, Keim promised that the offensive line and specifically the run game would become his top priority. Now as OTA’s begin we can finally begin to see Keim’s and Arians’ vision taking shape. The interior got young with both blue chip and developmental talent set behind solid veteran leadership and that trend continued on the outside with the tackles.

So, who makes the team? Who dresses on Sundays? And most important of all who are your starting five at the beginning of the season and who are they at the end? It’s early still in the offseason but if I had to say today I think you’re starting five look something like this: Brown Cooper, Sendlein, Colledge, and Massie, with Watford and Potter dressing on Sundays and Kelemente and Chilo Rachal in reserves.

I do expect a big change in the line sometime towards the middle of the season, in the end I think your week 18 starting offensive line looks like this: Potter, Cooper, Sendelin, Watford, and Massie. Coach Arians believes in competition at all positions outside of the quarterback and in the end the cost of keeping veterans like Brown and Colledge becomes disproportionate value to the impact they have.

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