The Cardinals offensive line improved as the season progressed, but the team is still searching for a starting left tackle.
Center Lyle Sendlein (63) has been a strong and reliable anchor for the Cardinals offensive line, but the parts around him could be rearranged prior to the 2014 season.
Casey Sapio / USA TODAY Sports
By Craig Morgan
FOX Sports Arizona is conducting a position-by-position analysis of the Arizona Cardinals, examining their personnel's strengths and weaknesses, the team's free agents at that position and the team's draft or free-agent needs.
Thanks to the yeoman work of the players themselves and the Cardinals' three offensive line coaches (offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin and assistants David Diaz-Infante and Larry Zierlein), the Cardinals were able to improve dramatically after some early-season struggles. But some of that had to do with an altered game plan that saw fewer deep routes and deep drops, plus more help on the edge for Sowell. The Cardinals still need to upgrade this unit in order to remove some of the offense's shackles, and they know it.
Change begins at left tackle, where Sowell battled hard after thrown into the fire following the release of Levi Brown. Sowell would be a good backup, but he doesn't possess the skills to be a starting left tackle in the NFL, which is why he was given so much chipping help from running backs and tight ends (which, as noted, limited the offense's passing options). Replacing Sowell in the starting lineup is priority No. 1 for the Cardinals offense this offseason.
Colledge will be an interesting one to watch. With Cooper's return, he would logically shift back to right guard, where he was slated to start last season. But Colledge's $7.3 cap hit will be tough to swallow. He may be asked to take a pay cut or move on. The Cardinals still have journeyman Paul Fanaika on the roster, and they have big Earl Watford waiting in the wings. Those would be far cheaper options. Given the work the aforementioned three coaches did with this unit over the course of the season, maybe they believe that will be enough going forward, even if that would also mean three new starters on a unit that generally thrives on continuity.
Cooper returns amid great expectations after a broken leg ended the 2013 first-round pick's rookie season in a preseason game.
Sendlein is the remarkable anchor of this unit, an undrafted free agent in 2007 who, despite a couple off-games and his own nitpicking, had a very good season. Sendlein is durable, too, which gives the Cardinals great security at this position.
Fanaika did not grade out that well over the entirety of the season, but the ASU product improved by leaps and bounds as it progressed. He is the quiet, hard-working type that earns Arians' praise. The Cardinals wisely signed him to a one-year extension early in the season. He's a valuable player to have, either as a 2014 starter or a depth guy.
By his own admission, Winston had an uneven season in his first year in a new system. But like most of the line, he improved as the season progressed. Winston adds an even-handed presence in the locker room and an articulate voice in the media. He is an unrestricted free agent who wants to come back (the Cards want him back), but he could prove too costly (he required only a $2 million cap hit in 2013). Winston said Sunday that he has had preliminary talks with the Cardinals, but with free agency still a month away (March 11), he called it "way too early in the process" to expect any resolution soon. If Winston does not return, Bobby Massie, a 2012 fourth-round pick, is waiting in the wings, but are the Cardinals comfortable inserting as many as four new starters into a lineup that took half a season to jell in 2013?
Nate Potter, Mike Gibson, Earl Watford, Paul Fanaika, Bobby Massie, Tom Draheim (futures contract), Philip Blake (futures contract).
Potter either regressed in 2014 or his skill-set didn't impress the current coaching staff as much as the former. He's a cheap and versatile option as a backup (one with starter's experience), so he has value moving forward.
Gibson is a free agent who could be replaced with a cheaper option.
Watford, a 2013 fourth-round pick, has enviable size for his position (6-4, 295). He had an entire year to learn the craft, but is he ready to step into a starter's role if Colledge departs, or would he be better served as Fanaika's backup when the season begins?
Massie has been a bit of an enigma. Winston won the battle for the starter's position in training camp, and Massie never proved he was ready to take it back despite Winston's early-season struggles. He may have to take that leap if Winston leaves in free agency. The Cardinals could use his big frame (6-6, 316) to spark the run game.
Eric Winston (unrestricted), Mike Gibson (unrestricted).
As with virtually every other position, this depends on what happens with the current roster. The Cardinals are expected to pursue free-agent left tackle Branden Albert (Kansas City) aggressively in free agency. If they land him, their needs could become more about filling backup roles, unless Colledge is released or Winston departs in free agency. They may also have to replace Gibson if he leaves in free agency or they want a cheaper option, but existing players could also take over.
Even if the Cardinals land Albert or another free-agent left tackle, they still might want to groom a young one. Sowell made great progress and worked as hard as any player on the team, but that's not good enough at one of the offense's two most important positions. The Cards need better options.
TOP POTENTIAL DRAFT PICKS
Tackles: Jake Matthews, Texas A&M; Greg Robinson, Auburn; Taylor Lewan, Michigan, Zack Martin, Notre Dame; Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama, Morgan Moses, Virginia; Antonio Richardson, Tennessee; Jack Mewhort, Ohio State; Joel Bitonio, Nevada; Billy Turner, North Dakota State; JaWuan James, Tennessee; James Hurst, North Carolina; Seantrel Henderson, Miami; Michael Schofield, Michigan; Justin Britt, Missouri; Wesley Johnson, Vanderbilt; Cameron Fleming, Stanford; Cornelius Lucas, Kansas State; Matt Patchan, Boston College; Donald Hawkins, Texas.
Guards: David Yankey, Stanford; Xavier Su'a-Filo, UCLA; Cyril Richardson, Baylor; Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State; Dakota Dozier, Furman; Anthony Steen, Alabama; Brandon Thomas, Clemson; Chris Watt, Notre Dame; Jon Halapio, Florida; Brandon Linder, Miami; Russell Bodine, North Carolina; Kadeem Edwards, Tennessee State; John Urschel, Penn State; Spencer Long, Nebraska; Ryan Groy, Wisconsin.