The Arizona Cardinals offensive line might be one of the most misunderstood components of their 2020 offense. In 2018 they were awful. Butt fumble awful.
In fact, they were undoubtedly one of the reasons the 2018 Cardinals were rated as the worst team in the NFL in the last decade by ESPN. In 2018 they rotated more than 20 players on the line; a giant red flag for a league that values consistency. Projected somewhere between a Pop Warner and NCAA Division 2 line, no one seemed to expect much going into 2019.
After the 2019 season concluded the outlook didn’t change from a talking heads perspective. The overwhelming outcry among fans was to go offensive line in the draft, especially considering a talent pool that was deep on the line with the likes of Tristan Wirfs, Mekhi Becton, Andrew Thomas, and Jedrick Wills. The Cardinals had an opportunity to play it safe (whatever that means) and boost their line via the draft.
That didn’t happen. Some were shocked, and some let it slide because it netted the Cardinals one of the more hyped defensive players in the entire draft, Isaiah Simmons.
Pleasingly for the fan base, the Cardinals were able to acquire first-round talent in the third round when Josh Jones surprisingly landed in their laps at pick no. 72. This luck of the draw simply added fuel to the Cardinals hype train going in to 2020. And just last week Steve Keim dipped into Free Agency and brought in Kelvin Beachum.
Why does it matter?
Considering how important an offensive line is to both a run and pass game and the need for a Cardinals team to protect the face of their franchise, Kyler Murray, the speculation and projections for the 2020 offensive line are far more important than many outside of Arizona are willing to admit.
It’s possible that the offensive line is still reeling from their 2017/2018 reputation, or that 49 sacks in 2019 are all the data needed, or it’s possible that no one wants to go there because projecting the line is too difficult.
Today, we go there.
How to project an offensive line
Offensive lineman is a notoriously difficult group to project. Projecting QB’s, RB’s, and WR’s is a far easier task when you have objective data such as receptions, touchdowns, and yards.
Many analytics sites try to quantify the effectiveness of offensive lines with stats like hurries, pressures, and sacks, but the reality is where a receiver either catches the ball or doesn’t, an offensive lineman is not always responsible for what may appear to be an offensive line failure.
A jittery start
In week 1 Kyler Murray was sacked by his own lineman; J.R. Sweezy. Coming into that game the NFL world was hyped to see what this new Kliff Kingsbury offense would look like and how it would play in the NFL. The first half of that game was embarrassing, and you can look no further than the J.R. Sweezy sack for proof. It was a pinprick to an overinflated balloon.
But was that Sweezy’s fault? Maybe. Maybe not?
Upon further review, it seems like it might have been nothing more than a scared rookie quarterback running with his head down. As mentioned, when a receiver drops a pass it’s very clearly his fault. When a lineman sacks his own quarterback there are still questions to be answered.
Despite these inherent difficulties, there is enough data to project whether or not the Arizona Cardinals offensive line has an opportunity to be decent in 2020. All you need to do is dig a bit.
Reading the data
The first data point everyone runs to when discussing offensive lines always seem to be sacks allowed. Which is a decent starting point considering how devastating a sack can be for an NFL offense. And it’s a fairly easy metric to quantify.
Sacks lose big yards, they risk the health and safety of your quarterback, and they can put an abrupt end to a momentum-changing drive. And considering how important momentum is for the Cardinals offense, sacks are fair game for analyzing the quality of the line. When you look at the sacks allowed in 2019 for the Arizona Cardinals, there appear to be more reasons to frown than smile.
The Cardinals ended the season with 49 sacks. Throw in the towel, the offensive line was terrible, no need to look any further.
According to Pro Football Focus, 23 of those sacks were blamed on Kyler Murray. A debatable approach, but if we only look at sacks blamed on the line, that drops the Arizona Cardinals offensive line from 49 sacks allowed to 26 sacks allowed. A massive drop from the original figure. So massive in fact, had Kyler Murray not created a single sack for himself in 2019, the Cardinals would have been sandwiched between the Tennessee Titans and Green Bay Packers for the fifth fewest sacks allowed in the entire NFL.
Most sack evaluations come from analysis in its entirety – 49 sacks in 2019. But when you take sacks allowed as a trend line from week 1 through week 17, you get an Arizona Cardinals offensive line that started trending at 4.0 sacks allowed per game in week 1 and ended the season trending 2.5 sacks allowed per game.
Have I got your attention?
Statistically, the offensive line didn’t perform well when you consider the 2019 season in its entirety. They looked especially awful when you evaluate the first few weeks of the season in isolation. But dig in on the data just a bit and a picture of growth and improvement starts to form.
Time to Throw (TT)
An undervalued metric that correlates to offensive line play is a stat called Time to Throw (TT). This metric quantifies how much time a quarterback is given from snap to release or pressure.
Through week 5 the Cardinals put up some awful TT numbers, bottoming out in week 2 against the Baltimore Ravens when Kyler Murray was afforded a mere 2.36 seconds to throw the ball. Yikes.
However, plug in each week’s TT and the offensive line went from 2.60 seconds to start the season and ended at just under 2.90 seconds. The NFL averaged 2.78 TT across the entire season. The offensive line went from Pop Warner to above league average.
Pass Block & Pass Rush win rates
ESPN recently launched a new metric targeting offensive lines called Pass Block Win Rates (PBWR) and Pass Rush Win Rates (PRWR). You can read more about what these data points mean here, but essentially if an offensive lineman is able to sustain a block for longer than 2.5 seconds then they’re considered to have won that pass or run block. Where did the Arizona Cardinals offensive line rank int his metric you ask? Pretty darn high!
For PBWR the Cardinals ranked 10th in the entire NFL with 62%. For perspective, they beat out the Eagles, Cowboys, Saints, Buccaneers, and Patriots, all of whom were top 10 ranked offensive lines for 2019 by PFF.
Often overlooked was how frequently the Cardinals were playing from behind, requiring a pass-heavy offense, and the well-known fact that Kyler Murray struggled with holding the ball far too long early in the season. Two major factors that contribute to the perception of a poor offensive line.
Going into 2020, if the Cardinals can balance their run to pass plays more consistently, and the fact that Kyler absolutely will not struggle with holding the ball like he did early in 2019 is a good sign for improvement.
The Arizona Cardinals offensive line actually excelled at run blocking in 2019.
According to Football outsiders DVOA for 2019 (DVOA explanation and breakdowns can be found here) the Arizona Cardinals were ranked #2 in the NFL in Rushing DVOA trailing only the Ravens. In fact, the air raid offense was actually more of a run raid offense in 2019 having averaged over five yards per attempt with 1,990 rushing yards on the season. All of that coming from a team that avoided the run game early in the season.
Would it surprise you if I told you LT D.J. Humphries actually ranked in the top three of all NFL left tackles for run blocking on several key metrics? Of Arizona’s 1,990 rushing yards, 610 of them were gained rushing outside of left tackle, second-most in the NFL. They also averaged 6.85 yards per carry with six touchdowns in Humphries’ direction, good enough for third and second in the NFL.
ESPN ranked the Arizona Cardinals offensive line 10th in the NFL for Pass Rush Win Rates with 46%. This success outperformed the Ravens, Colts, Saints, and Titans, also top 10 ranked offensive lines for 2019 by PFF.
The Arizona Cardinals offensive line also improved dramatically with durability. Granted, this isn’t saying much considering how beat up their line was in 2018.
In 2018 the Cardinals saw in excess of 20 lineman play throughout the season. That’s an incredible statistic for a group that only lines up five players on game day. In 2019 we saw D.J. Humphries, J.R. Sweezy, Justin Pugh, and A.Q. Shipley start 16 games. Justin Murray started 12 games replacing the injured Marcus Gilbert. Durability became a strength.
What does this mean for 2020?
A deeper dive does tweak the narrative and renders some hope. But in no way does this mean the Arizona Cardinals offensive line will be a behemoth in the NFL.
But do they really need to be? And what exactly have they done to continue their improvement?
Most projections have the Arizona Cardinals offensive line sitting somewhere near the bottom for 2020. Which seems to be a fair projection at first glance. PFF.com has them ranked 22nd in the NFL, and FootballGuys.com has them ranked 23rd for example.
Is this good enough?
The 2019 NFL playoff teams were the 49’ers, Packers, Saints, Eagles, Seahawks, Vikings, Ravens, Chiefs, Patriots, Texans, Bills, and Titans. According to Football Outsiders, each of these teams offensive lines ranked as follows:
Team/Rush ranking/Pass ranking
No discernible consistency between offensive line rankings and impact on playoff potential. Some teams produced at elite levels like the Ravens and Saints. Others were some of the worst in the NFL like the Tennessee pass rank and the Kansas City rush rank.
This bodes well for the Arizona Cardinals offensive line. It also suggests if they can produce at league average then their playoff odds shouldn’t be impacted too dramatically.
Evaluating offensive lineman on a player by player level is important to accurately gauge the potential of an offensive line. This also represents one of the major improvements for the Arizona Cardinals offensive line as they retained all of their starters, only swapping A.Q. Shipley for Josh Jones.
Projected Position: Right Tackle
2019 PFF Grade: 62.9
Sacks Allowed: 4
Justin Murray actually turned some heads in 2019 with a great season. Murray was dramatically under the radar having spent most of his career bouncing around practice squads, acquired by the Cardinals in a waiver pickup out of Oakland. Immediately slated as the Cardinals starting right tackle when Marcus Gilbert was injured in training camp, the “other” Murray looked bad in weeks 1 and 2 costing him his starting job.
He was given a second chance starting in week 5 and the Cardinals got an entirely new lineman. He finished the season as one of the best tackles in the NFL highlighted by making PFF’s team of the week in Week 11 against the 49’ers where he scored an amazing 74.2 grade. In fact, over the course of his last 6 games in 2019, he only allowed one sack, 8 QB pressures, and one penalty.
Projected Position: Left Tackle
2019 PFF Grade: 64.5
Sacks Allowed: 2
It wasn’t until 2019 that the Cardinals got a glimpse at why they drafted Humphries 24th overall in the 2015 NFL draft. He missed his entire rookie season and battled injuries and inconsistency in the following years, but he turned things around in 2019 netting him a three year $45 million contract.
A widely scrutinized contract for a player with one good season under his belt, but possibly more a sign of the current offensive line market than anything. But when you look at the impact Humphries had on Arizona’s run game the contract starts to look a bit more justified.
As stated above, of Arizona’s 1,990 rushing yards, 610 of them were gained through Humphries, with a 6.85 yards per carry average and six touchdowns. Throw in only allowing two sacks on Kyler’s blindside and things start to look very promising.
Projected Position: Left Guard
2019 PFF Grade: 66.8
Sacks Allowed: 4
Justin Pugh wasn’t dominant in 2019, but he did well starting 14 games at LG and two at RT. While he wasn’t flashy, his four sacks allowed and two penalties make him a good option on the line.
Interestingly, Justin Pugh was selected to PFF’s All Clutch Second Team for 2019. Defined as effectiveness in the fourth quarter and overtime of one-score games, this award carries weight. While his overall game doesn’t make many headlines, knowing you have a guy on the line who was second-best in the NFL at stepping it up in the clutch, is great for a Cardinals team that consistently finds themselves fighting for wins in the fourth quarter.
Projected Position: Right Guard
2019 PFF Grade: 61.6
Sacks Allowed: 1
J.R. Sweezy did well in sack prevention but offers little more than stability on the line. A veteran presence is truly a benefit, especially for a line that lacked consistency prior to 2019 and features young talent.
While Sweezy is at risk of being relegated to depth and sub-packages in 2020, replaced by the likes of Josh Jones, Marcus Gilbert, or Justin Murray, having a steady eddy on the right side is a benefit that puts the Cardinals in a decent position for an effective 2020 offensive line.
Not to mention it would be hard-pressed to find any NFL team that wouldn’t appreciate J.R. Sweezy as depth for their line.
Projected Position: Right Tackle, Guard, Depth
2019 PFF Grade: 67.1
Sacks Allowed: 4
Kelvin Beachum was an under the radar signing for the Arizona Cardinals in terms of overall hype. Beachum has been a consistent contributor on the line in Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, and New York playing in 13 games in 2019, and from 2016 through 2018, he only missed one game.
PFF.com has Beachum listed as above average out of the left tackle position. However, with the signing of DJ Humphries, that position is locked down. Beachum could serve as insurance for Humphries who missed his entire rookie season to injury, but for current team need, it seems Beachum will be competing for a position on the right side.
The Cardinals had very little in the way of cap space and considering what they did have, this was a smart signing. Financial terms have yet to be disclosed, but the AZ Cardinals were able to land a player who provides experience, consistency, and durability who can play every game at right tackle, or provide well above average depth. Beachum has historically rejected the idea of switching to guard, but his athleticism and versatility would make the transition easier if necessary.
Marcus Gilbert missed the entire 2019 season due to injury. Injuries being more of the rule than the exception in his career. He was oddly resigned to a one year deal for 2020 and could be a good lineman for Arizona if he stays healthy. Considering 2015 marked the last time he played 16 games, the signing seemed more of an overspend on depth with potential upside or insurance in case of injury. Having not signed him also could have forced Steve Keim to select a tackle with the 8th overall pick. This means no Isaiah Simmons.
Many analysts automatically assigned him a starting role due to his contract, but Steve Keim has proven on many occasions that contract values don’t always dictate starting roles. To his benefit and detriment, Keim and his coaches aren’t afraid to play the best player in the best position regardless of dollars. Not to mention the Arizona Cardinals already have nearly $30-million committed to three linemen for 2020 – D.J. Humphries, Justin Pugh, and J.R. Sweezy. This might explain why Keim wasn’t as active in free agency as much as Cardinals fans would have liked.
This is the position and player most interesting to the offensive line going into 2020. Sure, there’s a lot of excitement for when or where Josh Jones will play. And I thoroughly expect a lot of action out of the rookie. But Mason Cole is a third-year lineman who went from everyday starter in 2018 to backup in 2019. Steve Keim, Kliff Kingsbury, and Sean Kugler are so high on Cole that they let A.Q. Shipley walk, placing the starting center job squarely on Cole. This may be due to Mason having shown flashes of dominance.
The reality is his career has been inconsistent, having two different coaches with two different schemes across his first two seasons. Consistency and development will give Cole the opportunity to lock down the starting C role. And given the fact that the next best option for center is sixth round pick Lamont Gaillard, a successful year three for Mason Cole is vitally important.
First-round talent in the third round puts Josh Jones in line for a lot of playing time in 2020. Coming out of Houston, Josh Jones went into the 2020 draft as PFF’s fourth-ranked OT and 14th ranked prospect.
Josh Jones is mountain of a man, standing at 6’5″ and tipping the scales at 320lbs, he has the physical makeup of a top tier tackle. Combine that with a dominating collegiate career in which he only allowed 18 pressures across 1,282 pass blocking snaps, and was voted the #1 tackle in the 2020 draft by PFF.com.
The reality is the Cardinals may be seeing a high impact player they can start at right tackle as early as this season. For further analysis of Josh Jones check out this Time Skewed draft recap article.
In no way would I suggest that the Arizona Cardinals offensive line is in position to be a dominant line in 2020. They won’t be heralded like the Cowboys or Eagles offensive line, but the fact is they don’t have to be a top-five line in order to get to the playoffs.
There are many question marks around durability and consistency for anyone to comfortably hang their hat on this group. But the data suggests far more promise than the current offensive line power rankings project.
With the improvement in the 2019 second half and great blocking win rates, there’s reason to be hopeful. If this group can stay healthy and continue to improve, they could be just good enough to contribute to a playoff-caliber offense.
What they do have going for them is a quarterback who ranked #1 in the NFL in pressure evaded percentages with 31.4% and an offensive line coach considered to be one of the best in all of football.
The opportunity exists to be great. Now all the Cardinals need is for the line to seize it.