Poor quarterback play was the Cardinals’ defining characteristic the past three seasons, but poor offensive line play wasn’t far from grabbing the mantle. To address those problems, the Cardinals selected left guard Jonathan Cooper with the seventh pick in the draft — the first time they’d selected a lineman higher than the fourth round since Levi Brown in 2007.
Unfortunately, the best-laid plans went awry when Cooper went down in the third preseason game with a broken left fibula. His absence has already had a ripple effect on the line, with two starting positions sporting new names. We won’t know the full effect of Cooper’s season-long absence until he plays and lets us see what we were missing, but here’s a look at the line as it exists today.
Starters: LT Levi Brown, LG Daryn Colledge, C Lyle Sendlein, RG Paul Fanaika, RT Eric Winston
Reserves: Ts Bobby Massie, Nate Potter, Bradley Sowell. G Earl Watford. C Mike Gibson.
Unit standout: Unfortunately it was Cooper, who was placed on season-ending injured reserve Friday with a broken left fibula. Cooper’s pass blocking was fine but still a work in progress. His athleticism was his calling card and figured to impact the Cards’ anemic running game immediately. Cooper had the ability to pull and get out in space and into the second level of tacklers. Playing alongside natural run mauler Levi Brown, Cooper figured to give the Cards an effective side to run behind.
How will they compensate for Cooper’s loss? We don’t know. Colledge has shown the ability to pull and has looked solid in the preseason. He did, after all, play for the Super Bowl-winning Packers. The Cards don’t believe they will lose anything physically with Colledge and Fanaika manning the guard spots, but they won’t have the same versatility as Cooper and Colledge would have provided, and that could have a ripple effect on the entire offense.
Is the depth really better? Every coaching staff and management staff will tell you they have improved depth on a yearly basis. But with the addition of Winston, the return of Brown from a season-long triceps injury a year ago, and the sliding of Massie and Potter into backup spots, there does appear to be some merit to that statement. It’s interesting that the Cards claimed Sowell off waivers. That makes three reserve tackles, none of whom is practice-squad eligible. Coach Bruce Arians has been asked repeatedly if he would consider moving Massie or Potter inside, and he has repeatedly said no. If he doesn’t, one of the three tackles must go, as the Cards can’t afford three reserve tackles on their 53-man roster. Massie showed progress over the second half of the 2012 season, but analysts tend to forget that he got plenty of help in pass blocking. Potter beefed up this season but still doesn’t look like guard material. At times, Sowell lined up as a tight end with the Colts (Arians’ former team), adding an interesting wrinkle to his abilities.
Intriguing combo: In his only season with the Chiefs, Winston committed eight penalties and allowed six sacks. He was also the focus of attention when he ripped fans who cheered quarterback Matt Cassel’s injury. Still, many national analysts lauded the Cards for signing him to a one-year, $2 million deal. Arians has also lauded Fanaika’s play at guard. He was miscast as a tackle, as he struggles with lateral movement, but Arians believes Fanaika’s physical play will thrive in the tight spaces of his new position. The Colledge-Winston combo was more intriguing on the right side, but this one still shows potential.
Center of consistency: It’s amazing that center Lyle Sendlein was once an undrafted free agent. His work ethic, affable nature and ability to learn quickly earned him a starting spot shortly after the Cards signed him in 2007. Early in training camp this year, he had to earn his keep all over again with a new coaching staff, but it didn’t take long for Arians to begin praising this classic underdog and local product, who played high school ball at Scottsdale Chaparral.
Is Levi really worth it? The Cards signed Brown to a five-year, $30 million deal, which is pretty safe money for a starting left tackle. The sarcastic reply is that Brown probably ranks 30th, 31st or dead last among those starting left tackles. The Cards clearly missed Brown last season, when there was a parade of sackers to their quarterbacks. He also does a lot that goes unnoticed and gets left on an island plenty, which is going to lead to some sacks. But the sight of the Chargers’ Dwight Freeney lighting him up in a preseason game brought back bad memories for Cardinal fans who wonder if Brown will ever come close to meriting the fifth overall pick the team used on him in 2007.
Outlook: We genuinely believe the line has improved, but the loss of Cooper may mean that improvement is just marginal. Given where the Cards have been the past few seasons, that won’t be enough.