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As the Cardinals wrap up the offseason program next week with a shortened mandatory minicamp that will last two days instead of three, there have been many eyes and focus on the offensive line.
With all the chatter and headlines about new culture and attention to detail, it goes without saying that a major factor in the 4-13 record last season was an up-front group that changed faces almost weekly and had no continuity.
Left tackle D.J. Humphries, who returned to the field for Wednesday’s OTA after playing only eight games last season because of a back injury, noted how “adverse” it was in 2022 and said, “People don’t get to see how important the offensive line is until they’re not out there. And then it’s like, ‘This team sucks.’ Well, I think it’s a big deal having your group together.”
Coach Jonathan Gannon surely understands that. The Eagles team he was a part of last season started the same 22 players in the Super Bowl that was on the field for the season opener. On the offensive line, of the possible 100 starts including the postseason, there were only three missed games.
“I always think that the camaraderie of that O-line is a big piece, especially for the quarterback,” Gannon said during OTA work. “When they’re on the same page, it makes everything go a little bit better.”
That certainly wasn’t the case for the Cardinals in 2022. It was chronicled here frequently last season, but it’s instructive to revisit it.
In addition to losing assistant coach Sean Kugler in November, the Cardinals had 10 different starting line combinations in 17 games and 12 different players started games. Right tackle Kelvin Beachum was the only offensive player to start all 17 games and there were only two other offensive linemen that started at least 10: right guard Will Hernandez with 13 and center Billy Price with 11. Price didn’t arrive in Arizona until Oct. 4.
There were five different starting left guards, three centers and right guards and two left tackles.
To say there are a lot of new faces this season would be a massive understatement. Of the 12 players that started games, only five return: Beachum (97.9 percent of the snaps), Hernandez (70.1), tackle Josh Jones (51.8), Humphries (47.7) and center/guard Lecitus Smith (17.3).
Of the seven departed players, only one (Cody Ford) is currently on another NFL team. The other six were Price, Justin Pugh, Rodney Hudson, Max Garcia, Sean Harlow and Rashaad Coward.
Marquis Hayes, a rookie in 2022, is back after spending the entire season on reserve/injured, while Julien Davenport, Badara Traore and Lachavious Simmons were on the practice squad.
Rounding out the 16 linemen currently competing for jobs are draft choices Paris Johnson Jr. and Jon Gaines II, free-agent additions Jackson Barton, Dennis Daley, Hjhalte (first name pronounced Yellda) Froholdt and Elijah Wilkinson, plus waiver claim Hayden Howerton.
During OTA work, of which the media was able to watch four of 10 practices, Johnson was mostly at right tackle with the first unit with Beachum absent until this week, Froholdt and Gaines shared time at center, Jones was at left tackle with Humphries not practicing, while Daley and Wilkinson were at left guard.
Gannon has been consistently circumspect when asked what the line will look like when the season begins, usually mentioning mixing and matching, playing guys at different positions and saying we’ll know on Week 1.
After Beachum was on the field for the first time this past Monday, Gannon was asked where he fits and said, “We’ll see. He was out there today, which was good to see him trotting around. So, we’ll define everybody’s role as we get going before Week 1.”
As for how the continuity will occur, Gannon said, “As we go through training camp, we’ll kind of mix and match guys but who they end up lining up with and who they’re playing with starting with Week 1 they’ll have good continuity.”
Froholdt was with the Browns last season where offensive coordinatior Drew Petzing was the quarterbacks coach and quarterback Colt McCoy made sure to emphasize how much that has helped during the offseason.
McCoy said, “I’ve spent a lot of time with Yellda watching Browns tape and just out at practice (there’s been) lots of communication. He knows the protections, he knows the Mike points, he knows what we’re trying to attack when we call different runs or passes. He’s been a great sounding board for me. He’s done a really nice job at center, really helping me understand … we’ve got a lot more on our plates from a protection standpoint and he’s been great for me; you feel pretty comfortable.
“It’s kind of like having Rodney out there. I’m not comparing those two guys, but Rodney was the same way. He has this demeanor about him that I’m going to make it right up front and if you see something else that’s on you. I kind of feel the same way in the operation with Yellda.”
Gannon said of Froholdt, “He’s fantastic. He’s been a great addition by Monti (general manager Monti Ossenfort). He’s one of the strongest guys we have on our team. He’s an ultimate pro about how he prepares each and every day and he’s producing on the field. He’s got a versatile skill set. He can play multiple positions, so glad we have him.”
While McCoy spoke at length about the adjustment to the new offense, he is also optimistic about how the running game will achieve with James Conner.
“I think James will be good in this system,” McCoy said. “We stayed in 10 personnel, 11 personnel a lot with Kliff (Kingsbury) and that was sort of our identity. Here, we’ll implement more two-tight end sets and running the football and having more checks and alerts and things like that that will get James going. Hopefully, get him in the right looks.”
McCoy credited new line coach Klayton Adams with what he’s done in the offseason.
“The offensive line has done a tremendous job this offseason,” McCoy said. “I think that’s been the best part of everything is Klayton has got those guys dialed in to what we’re doing, who we’re blocking, different fronts. We’re seeing a bunch from Nick (defensive coordinator Nick Rallis) and the defense, so the offensive line has done a really nice job with all the new stuff. I’m really pleased with where they’re at.”
Conner agrees. He said the line has “a lot of depth, a lot of talent. That’s what I see so far. Talented guys all over. I’m really excited about that. Just watching the film, watching them practice together, watching the camaraderie. The size of the guys; how strong they are. They’re moving weight in the weight room. I love that. Seeing what the big guys are doing in there and seeing it translate to the field. Just being conditioned, so it’s exciting.”
Humphries also had good words for Adams and assistant line coach Chris Cook.
“I love Klay,” Humphries said. “He’s got a great sense of humor and a great sense of understanding of how to blend the two. When it’s time to be serious, we’re going to be serious. When it’s time to let our hair down, we’re going to let our hair down. He has very good control of the room. It’s fun to be a part of because him and Cook; they know their stuff. Any time you have a question, it’s (snapping his fingers) always rapid fire (response).”
Of course, one of the biggest questions is whether Johnson will open the season at left guard or right tackle. He played left tackle last season at Ohio State and left guard the season before.
Asked that question, Gannon gave a predictable answer: “When’s our first game? That’s when we’ll know.”
He did add, however, “He’s playing outside today, but he’s played both positions in college, so he has some versatility. But I think he has what you’re looking for in a starting tackle.”
Conner has been impressed with Johnson, noting, “Paris is looking good. His day-to-day, his routine, going through the motions. He’s looking like a guy who’s been here for a while, going about his business. That’s lovely to see. A guy who’s finishing reps hard and acting like a true pro.”
“I like him a lot,” Humphries said. “He’s a student. He’s got a lot of student to him. He’s not a young ‘Hump’ that’s kind of like, ‘I got this shit figured out, you guys get out of the way and hold my water.’ He doesn’t have any of that to him. He wants to know, ‘Am I doing this right? How can I do this better? What are you thinking about when you do this?’
“When I met him, like the first practice I was outside doing my thing on the side and he came up to me after that practice and was kind of trying to figure out how I do my thing when I’m taking sets, and what I’m thinking about it and what I’m looking at. From the jump, he’s always been super-like, ‘Hey, help me.’ Like I told him, when I came into the league, it was the complete opposite of helping the young guys. So I want an environment where you can lean on me. Whether it’s on the field, off the field, whatever you need, I’m here. (But) he’s sure of himself so I don’t have to coddle him. Just let him do his thing.”
Humphries insists he didn’t feel threatened when Johnson was selected with the sixth choice in April’s draft.
“Humphries said. “When we drafted him, I was excited. I saw him on the field, and I saw what type of player he is, and I was excited because I knew he’s going to be good for our line. The reality of football is that they’ve drafted tackles and linemen every year I’ve been here. It’s the NFL. You know what comes with this. I’m not here to be worried about who they drafted. You sit around thinking about who’s being drafted; you need to be working on what you need to be working on to make sure you don’t get put on the bench when they draft that guy.
“My dad told me very early on as a kid: Whatever you’re doing is about you. Whatever you see or whatever they’re good at has nothing to do with what actually you have to do. So always hone in on what you need to do to prepare and be in the position to show people who you are.”
Gannon is glad Humphries appears to be past his back injury.
“Absolutely, 100 percent,” the coach said. “He’s one of the guys I lean on. That’s what we want to build our team with. And not just our premium players. We want everybody to be like that. There’s a large group of guys in that locker room that produce at a high level, that are about the right things, and that’s why they’re Cardinals.
“We’re going to need good football from him.”
Meanwhile, Humphries will continue to help Johnson and anyone else that wants it.
He joked, “I ain’t no hater” and concluded, “If I can help you do that, that’s cool. I’m going to be in some guy’s Hall of Fame speech (when he says), ‘He really helped me, man.'”
Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org