Cardinals trying to piece together O-line puzzle

Offensive tackle Bobby Massie is trying to reclaim a starting job after going from 16 starts as a rookie in 2012 to zero in 2013.

Mark J. Rebilas/Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

TEMPE, Ariz. — Bobby Massie made an assumption that a lot of college stars make when he they arrive in the NFL.

"I was going to go out and do the same thing I did on Saturday on Sunday," said Massie, the Cardinals’ fourth-round draft pick out of Mississippi in 2012. "It ain’t worked out like that, obviously."

Massie started all 16 games at right tackle in his rookie season under former head coach Ken Whisenhunt, but he came to the quick realization that there was more to this NFL thing than an SEC pedigree.

"It was after I gave up about the 12th sack in about six or seven games — that’s when it hit me," Massie said. "I had to change everything I was doing if I wanted to be in the league for long."

Massie played understudy to Eric Winston last season in Bruce Arians’ first year as coach, appearing in only eight games and making zero starts. But with Winston an unsigned free agent, Massie has a chance — maybe his last — to prove he is ready for the job. 

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Assuming the Cardinals don’t add a free agent before training camp, Massie is in a battle with another Ole Miss alumnus, Bradley Sowell, for the starting right tackle job (Nate Potter could also be in the mix). That is one of two key position battles along the offensive line as the Cardinals engage in their second week of OTAs. The other is at right guard, where incumbent Paul Fanaika is battling 2013 fourth-round pick Earl Watford (free-agent pickup Ted Larsen is another possibility).

"It’s wide open," said Arians, while acknowledging that Fanaika "has the benefit of doubt because he’s got 16 games on film and he played pretty solid."

In truth, the Cardinals would like to see Massie grab the right tackle spot. It’s apparent in the tough-love language of both general manager Steve Keim and coach Bruce Arians. When asked why it has taken Massie so long to learn proper technique and apply the playbook, Arians said: "Go ask him. It’s not that hard."

There’s a reason for this tough love. In Massie, the staff sees a greater talent upside than it sees with Sowell. What the staff still needs to see from him is the substance that Sowell has better mastered.

"No mental errors," Arians said. "Don’t turn the blitzer loose that he’s responsible for on the edge. Make the proper calls."

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Massie said he worked hard last season and this spring on getting stronger, getting more flexible, moving to his left and improving his study habits.

"I have to work on my craft more and get in the playbook harder than what I was doing," Massie said. "You can’t be big-headed. I came from the SEC, I played real well there, and I came in with the same mindset I played in college with, and it ain’t like that. I had to learn how to become a professional."

Sowell entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2012; there was no sense of entitlement. When the Cardinals traded Levi Brown last season, Sowell dutifully filled in at the line’s most important position and took his lumps — on the field and in the media.

He knew at the end of last season there was a possibility the Cardinals would add a left tackle in free agency — they did in Jared Veldheer — so he began preparing for a move to the right side.

"I don’t care what I play out here. I don’t care if it’s tight end. I’ll play whatever as long as I can get on the field," Sowell said. "I’m not one of those guys who has a preference or a has the right to have a preference. I’m just glad to be in the NFL; glad to be on a team." 

Every player engaged in a position battle will tell you they are friendly competitions that don’t impact a relationship or the sharing of information between teammates. But Massie’s and Sowell’s competition is unique because they were college teammates.

"I like it because we can be real honest with one another," Sowell said. "If it was a guy I didn’t know it would be real awkward, but me and Bobby, every day we’re straight up with each other like" ‘Look, I’m going to beat you out.’ 

"We just say it straight up to each other, so it’s nice to be comfortable with someone and talk crap to each other; have a little fun with it." 

Sowell will try to prove otherwise, but he is likely the fallback option if Massie doesn’t pan out this summer. If he does win the job, however, it could spell the end of Massie’s time in Arizona. He wasn’t drafted by the current staff, so they are not invested in him. After three years, Keim and Arians might decide it just isn’t going to happen.

Massie is well aware of the stakes this offseason.

"That’s the only way to look at it. If they don’t like what you’re doing, they’re going to find somebody else to do it, right? That’s my mindset," he said. "I’m ready to showcase everything I’ve been doing in the offseason.

"I’m a good pass blocker. I’m a physical offensive lineman. I come to compete."

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