TEMPE, Ariz. – Levi Brown experienced an unfamiliar sensation last season as he watched the Cardinals’ train wreck of season from the sidelines with a torn triceps.
For five seasons, the fifth pick in the 2007 Draft was a lightning rod for criticism of Arizona’s offensive line. But with Brown out of lineup for all of 2012, it was suddenly open season on Cardinals quarterbacks, with Kevin Kolb being sacked an astounding 22 times in one three-game stretch early in the year.
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When asked Tuesday if it felt odd to be missed, the veteran left tackle smiled and offered the perfect mixture of humor and wisdom.
“I haven’t been back on the field,” he said. “Things could change.”
Ever since the 2012 season ended, it’s been assumed that the Cardinals would make changes along their offensive line in the offseason. When they didn’t do it in free agency – aside from signing depth guard Chilo Rachal – everyone assumed that meant the Cards would be shoring up through this week’s NFL Draft.
But what if the Cards don’t use one or more of their first three picks on an offensive lineman? What if they believe that getting Brown back (though likely not for OTAs), along with one-year veterans Bobby Massie and Nate Potter, gives them enough material moving forward?
“I’m not a believer that we need an offensive lineman desperately, like everybody else thinks,” head coach Bruce Arians said. “Not that we could never use more help, but I like what we have. Those three guys are a very good rotation, and the guys in the middle have a very good competition going.”
Like Ken Whisenhunt before him, Arians noted that a number of the Cardinals’ league-high 58 sacks last season were the product of running backs missing blocks, tight ends missing blocks, quarterbacks holding the ball too long or receivers missing sight reads.
It’s all true, but it’s also hard to tell if this is an intentional smokescreen in the days leading up to the Draft. At a press conference last week, Arians talked about the rising importance of quality offensive lineman in the pass-happy era of the NFL, when pass rushers have become perhaps the most athletic players on the field.
“There has been a big sway in value in the last eight years,” Arians said. “You never saw offensive linemen go in the top six picks. It was running backs, receivers, glory players, quarterbacks.
“Now there is such a value on both sides of the ball that in the last few years you’re seeing a ton of offensive linemen and defensive linemen drafted in the first round.”
This draft is considereddeep in offensive linemen, with Texas A&M tackle Luke Joeckel, Central Michigan tackle Eric Fisher, Oklahoma tackle Lane Johnson, Alabama tackle D.J. Fluker, Florida State tackle Menelik Watson, Alabama guard Chance Warmack and North Carolina guard Jonathan Cooper all drawing first-round projections on several draft boards.
The Cardinals haven’t drafted an offensive lineman in the first three rounds since they took Brown. Massie was a fourth-round pick last season and Potter was a seventh-round pick. In 2011 and 2010, the Cards didn’t draft an O-lineman; in 2009 they took Herman Johnson in the fifth round and Trevor Canfield in the seventh round; and in 2008, they took Brandon Keith in the seventh round.
With each passing year, general manager Rod Graves, Whisenhunt and offensive line coach Russ Grimm came under increased criticism for their perceived failing in this area. But with Steve Keim and Arians now in power, there is fresh blood in the decision-making process, which perhaps buys them time and a bit more credibility.
Grimm had the respect of his linemen while he was here, but there were some insiders who believed his drills were a bit too laid back and lacking in the details necessary for success.
Brown noted there were breakdowns in technique, but he dismissed the notion that it was Grimm’s fault, saying it wasn’t about the teaching; it was that “we just weren’t good enough at it.”
Arians understands that “58 (sacks) is way too many” to surrender, but he saw significant progress while watching film of the line late last season.
“The barometer is those last six games when there were very few sacks,” he said. “I look at it at those young guys progressing and everybody playing a little bit better.”
Are Keim and Arians willing to bet that progress will carry over into this season? The safe bet still says no, with so much talent at the line positions available in this draft. But if Arizona looks elsewhere with the No. 7 overall pick, it wouldn’t come as a surprise, given the confidence the club is expressing in its current personnel.