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Questions abound as Cardinals begin OTAs

Howard Balzer Avatar
May 19, 2023

The next four weeks will be important ones for the Cardinals as they look ahead to the opening of training camp at the end of July.

While the start of camp hasn’t been announced yet, it will be around July 28, which is 15 days prior to the Aug. 11 preseason opener at State Farm Stadium against the Denver Broncos.

The CBA mandates that veterans can’t report more than 15 days before the first game, but teams are permitted to bring in rookies earlier.

Beginning Monday, the Cardinals are scheduled to have 10 days of voluntary OTAs (May 22-23, May 25, May 31-June 2 and June 5-8), followed by the mandatory minicamp June 13-15.

There are numerous questions to be answered between now and the season opener in Washington Sept. 10, so let’s give it a try.

Who will be the starting center?

Coach Jonathan Gannon has tried to spin that positively when asked in recent weeks about the all-important anchor to the offensive line, but the reality is decidedly different.

During the pre-draft minicamp, Gannon said, “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. I like where (the center spot) is at right now.”

One candidate is free-agent addition Hjalte Froholdt, who started four games there for the Browns last season. Gannon said then that Froholdt had “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.”

Of course, doing “a really good job” at this time of the year simply means a player knows his assignments. That’s a world of difference between that and actually blocking against the top interior linemen in the NFL.

Meanwhile, this year’s fourth-round pick, Jon Gaines II, played mostly guard at UCLA, but did play some games at center in 2020 and 2021.

Prior to the recent rookie minicamp, Gaines said, “I played all over the field at UCLA, so wherever they need me to play I’m just ready to contribute. I think it goes hand-in-hand with being a good offensive lineman, being a good teammate. It’s about accountability, intelligence, toughness. It all just goes hand-in-hand with being a good football player.”

After selecting Gaines, general manager Monti Ossenfort said, “He is a guy that we did a lot of work on in the fall, and then he showed up at the East-West game in Las Vegas and had a chance to play some center there like he did at UCLA as well. We’ve kept a good conversation going with him from Vegas through the Combine and through the pre-draft process.”

Referring to Gaines, assistant general manager Dave Sears emphasized the versatility the team will expect from many of their offensive linemen, especially on the interior.

He said, “Clearly; mentally he can handle it. He’s one of the sharper guys we dealt with all spring. So any time you get a guy who’s just a guard or just a center, you guys see how many injuries you get. Guys get shuffled around. So having a guy who’s done it, not just projected to do it, you can look at some tape and see that and that’s a very valuable skill set.”

Asked if other reinforcements could be added, Oseenfort said, “Yes, I think it applies to every position; we’re constantly looking everywhere. As it pertains to the center position, I would say this: I would say really not only the center position. I’d say all along the offensive line; all those guys up front are going to play multiple positions. They’re going to play left tackle, right tackle, they’re going to play tackle to guard, guard to tackle, center to guard.

“Like Dave alluded to, if you’re a one-position player, you better do that one position really well. So, you know, all those guys are going to work everywhere. So not just the center position, I’d say all, it’s all across the board.”

The Cardinals currently have 16 offensive linemen under contract, including Lecitus Smith and Marquis Hayes who were rookies last season. Smith started two games at right guard when Will Hernandez was injured, but is expected to be in the center mix. Hayes spent the entire season on reserve/injured and is expected to work at guard.

How does the edge look?

There have been persistent questions about the defensive scheme and how the edge rushers will fit. The Eagles defense under Gannon was a 4-3, and defensive coordinator Nick Rallis was Philadelphia’s linebackers coach.

The numerous returning players were essentially 3-4 outside linebackers and rookie second-round pick B.J. Ojulari has been added to the group.

During interviews, coaches have avoided specifying what the defensive scheme will be, while insinuating that it could be a mix of groupings that will put the players in the best position to succeed.

What’s obvious is the regard they have for Ojulari.

Said Rallis, “I love what Ojulari can do in the pass and run game. He’s a very versatile player. I think he’s a very natural pass rusher, and you can see his bend. I think coming off the edge with speed, he can beat you with speed but as soon as he gets overset, it’s not, ‘Oh no, what happened?’ He’s very fluid and natural with his counter rushes, and then on top of that he can stick a long arm in there and work moves off his long arms.

“As far as his rush ability, he’s very versatile and very natural. How natural is this guy rushing off the edge? He’s very natural. Then I love the tools that he has in the run game as far as being able to set some violent edges and collapse the edge. That’s what we’re looking for at that spot.”

Ojulari said, “For me, it’s just being the best contributor I can be, do everything that the coaches ask of me, and just buy into whatever philosophy or plan the coaches have for me. It’s also about gaining the trust of my teammates and the vets and contribute.”

Where will Isaiah Simmons fit?

When May 2 came around, as expected, the Cardinals elected not to exercise the guaranteed $12.722 million fifth-year option on Simmons’ rookie contract.

Overall, there were 15 first-round picks from the 2020 COVID draft whose options weren’t exercised.

Unless there is a new contract, Simmons will become an unrestricted free agent in March 2024.

Simmons has been in meetings during the first month of the offseason program, but not on the field because of a shoulder injury suffered in the season finale.

During his first three seasons, Simmons has played multiple positions, so how the new coaching staff will utilize him is a big question.

While Rallis recently said Simmons has to “get really good at one thing,” he also acknowledged, “Isaiah is picking up everything we are installing extremely fast which gets you really excited. It’s ‘Let’s keep adding, let’s keep adding, let’s keep adding.’ The skill set (is) versatile. The intelligence (is) high; being able to do a lot of different things with one guy to bring out all those different skill sets he has.”

As for the contract situation, Gannon said, “I had a really good talk with Isaiah, and obviously have talked with Isaiah a lot. I am really comfortable where we are at with him, he is really comfortable with it, and the option, it really doesn’t change (anything). That’s why I say I’m really comfortable where we are at and comfortable where he is at, because it really doesn’t change what he is doing.

“He knows he has to play well, for us and for him. I really like where (his) mindset is at.”

Will quarterback Colt McCoy throw?

At the April minicamp, McCoy was present during the portion of practice open to the media, but for unexplained reasons did not throw.

Many expected the Cardinals to sign another somewhat accomplished veteran in the offseason thanks to the uncertain status of Kyler Murray, but that didn’t happen.

David Blough was re-signed, unrestricted free agent Jeff Driskel was signed and Clayton Tune was selected in the fifth round of the draft.

When asked about Murray at the rookie minicamp, Gannon said, “I know he’s making strides. I mean, he’s a long way away, but we don’t play for a long time either. So I feel good where he’s at. I gave him some hard questions yesterday in a team meeting, and he was on it. We had some bets if he was going to get it right or wrong and he got it right.

“And I took some money from some guys, and then he got mad that he heard somebody bet against him. But he’s competitive. He’s ultra-competitive. He’s got fire in his gut. And that’s what you want out of your trigger guy.”

It’s impossible to know when Murray will be ready to play his game, but the most important question is how much practice time he will need in a new offense and be comfortable physically and mentally.

Tune raised some eyebrows during a conference call after he was drafted when he told reporters, “I think I’m the best quarterback in this class and God’s got a plan for me. If you look at my body of work, the effect that I have on my team that I play on, I elevate everyone around me. I’m a natural leader, people follow me and see the work that I’m putting in and the mindset that I have, and they want to follow suit.

“I have that no-flinch mentality when things get going tough. Those are some of the intangible things, and then being able to make every throw on the field, being able to make plays off schedule and being more mobile than people realize.”

When Tune met with the media during the rookie minicamp, naturally those comments were brought up.

He said simply, “I’m confident in who I am and how I play. My goal is to just come in here and work. I’m not that type of guy to try and act like I’m this or that, but I’m very confident in my abilities and now it’s up to me to just come in here and work.”

Also eyebrow-raising were comments by former NFL quarterback Chris Simms, who said on NBC Sports that Tune could potentially do what Brock Purdy did with the 49ers last season.

Simms said, “I don’t think that’s crazy. I don’t. Like Brock Purdy, he’s played a ton of football, a ton of drop-back passes, and I actually think his physical ability, his potential, is greater than Brock Purdy. He’s a better athlete than Brock Purdy.”

All of that might be true, but the stark reality is that the 49ers are an infinitely better team than the Cardinals.

Contrary to the apparent perception of many, quarterbacks don’t play in a vacuum. What’s around them is a significant aspect of any success the quarterback will have.

Surely, though, Tune is expected to play significant snaps in the team’s three preseason games.

Gannon said, “You saw from the tape what it showed was he could make all the throws and he’s a big guy that’s mobile. I think obviously he’s a little bit different than the other quarterbacks that we have here. Not to say that he can’t function like that because I think he can, but if he’s out there playing, then we’re going to do everything that we can to tailor-fit the offense around him, just like we would do with anybody.

“What I was impressed with is, I didn’t realize that he was that big in how he moved around. I think that’s valuable in 2023 in the NFL right now.”

Then with the Browns, Cardinals quarterbacks coach Israel Woolfork worked with Tune all week at the Senior Bowl.

“He’s a productive, athletic quarterback that we were excited to add,” Ossenfort said. “He’s got good size, he’s got good speed, he throws the ball well. So, we will see how it goes. It’s a crowded room, but Kyler’s working back from his injury, and we’ll see how it goes. I think competition will bring out the best in everybody and we’ll just see where that ends up.”

Clark signs rookie contract

Sixth-round pick, cornerback Kei’Trel Clark, signed his contract when he reported to the team following the first two days of the recent rookie minicamp.

Clark missed the first two days so he could attend his graduation ceremony at Lousiville, the same school that Gannon attended.

When Clark told Gannon about the conflict, the head coach told him, “Brother, listen here, that’s important. We want all our guys to graduate. You know, you need to do that. And then he’ll get submerged on Sunday. So I feel good about where he’s at. He wants to be here, but (graduation is) important.”

Clark signed a four-year contract worth a total of $4,080,600 that includes a signing bonus of $208,600. The base salaries are the minimum of $750,000; $915,000; $1.03 million and $1.145 million. His cap charge for 2023 is $802,150.

Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter or email me: howard@gophnx.com

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