For the first time since 2008, the Arizona Cardinals will enter a new season without center Lyle Sendlein starting along the offensive line.
The former undrafted free agent out of Texas was a mainstay with the franchise and started all 16 games in six different seasons, but Arizona opted to release Sendlein in March with one year remaining on his contract.
The move gives way to competition up front, as the Cardinals will replace three of five starters on the offensive line from a season ago.
To enhance the battle for the starting center job, general manager Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians elected to use the franchise's fourth round draft pick on center Evan Boehm out of Missouri, a warrior of a college player who started a school record 52 consecutive games for the Tigers.
Boehm joins fifth-year Penn State product A.Q. Shipley on the Cardinals' depth chart at center and the pair figures to battle through fall camp for the starting job.
"He'll (Boehm) come and compete, there's no jobs handed out," Arians said of the rookie. "A.Q. Shipley is a good player and he'll have to come in and fight it out, but it's going to be a nice battle."
While many teams have put a premium on finding versatile offensive linemen through the draft who can plug in at different positions, Boehm is a natural center who has a skill set that should translate well to the Cardinals' scheme.
NFL centers must be among the smartest offensive linemen on the field, as their ability to process blitz packages, adjust protections and read and recognize defenses is critical to an offense's success. Though Boehm was still on the board in the fourth round, Keim indicated the Cardinals may have found themselves a steal because the Missouri product grades out so well in terms of situational awareness.
"A guy that probably is one of four or five natural centers that we identified during the draft process, having the ability to be a starter in the National Football League," Keim said. "Intangibles are excellent, we've talked to you about our personal character and our football character grades, and he was one of the five or six guys that warranted a double-A."
How He Fits
We believe Boehm possesses the requisite talent to start from day one with the Cardinals, especially considering the team's scheme fits his skill set as a player. In our film evaluation of Boehm, we noted Boehm's control of the A-gap and immediate side-to-side movements are among his strongest qualities. Boehm handles blitzers in the A-gap with poise, and rarely gives ground up the middle when pass blocking.
Boehm's side-to-side agility and powerful physique will help him own the A-gap on interior running plays, which is exactly what the Cardinals asked Sendlein to do last season. In the example below, Sendlein faced a defensive tackle lined up in a 1-technique, and at the snap, Sendlein fired off the ball, turned his man away from the A-gap (to the left) and opened up a running lane for David Johnson.
The Cardinals depended on Sendlein to move interior linemen off the ball with a quick first step, and sometimes, Sendlein was overmatched which forced ball carriers to bounce outside and divert their track away from the intended running lane. Boehm will likely represent an improvement at the center position as a run blocker, because he fires off the snap well for a center and does a nice job engaging with his hands and battling to gain ground against his opponent.
What separates Boehm as a center in the run game is his pad level off the ball, which is low to the ground and geared toward moving a defender off his mark. While Boehm doesn't possess long arms that help him drive defenders back toward the second level, he is a scrapper in the trenches who knows where to turn defenders to enable ball carriers to hit running lanes.
During the draft process, Keim felt Boehm's skill set was reminiscent of a player he scouted early in his career who enjoyed a long NFL career at center thanks to many of the qualities Boehm exhibits.
"As a younger scout in my career, there's a guy he really reminds me of physically, movement style, technique, the way he plays the game and that's Dan Koppen from Boston College who had a great career with the New England Patriots," Keim said. "A true lunch pail and hard hat kind of guy."
If Boehm can live up to the potential Keim and Arians see in him, it's realistic to expect Boehm to develop into a promising starter early in his career. However, Boehm does have some limitations he will need to work on, especially if the Cardinals want to avoid experiencing a drop off with the loss of Sendlein.
While Boehm may be an improvement compared to Sendlein in the interior running game, it will be interesting to monitor his progression on outside plays that call for centers to get out and pull. Boehm faced significant struggles as a senior with blocks in open space on toss plays and in the Missouri screen game because he doesn't run particularly well for a center, but those troubles were likely compounded by a high ankle sprain Boehm played with for much of the season.
The images below show a game from 2013, when Boehm was not dealing with a sprained ankle, and it illustrates the end of a play in which Boehm is pulling to the outside to set the edge and lead block for the ball carrier. Boehm was late getting to his landmark, but because he still drove his feet and the defender didn't make a great effort to disengage with him, Boehm ultimately managed to set the block.
If you compare Boehm's extended side to side movements with Sendlein's from last season, Sendlein grades out better, but not by a significant margin. Sendlein doesn't possess great speed, but like Boehm, he's a tenacious player who is willing to put his body on the line and do what he can to extend plays. If Sendlein couldn't square up on a defender, he would do his best to turn defenders away from running lanes.
One of the advantages of playing in the Cardinals' scheme for Boehm is that when the team has the center pull or uses the center as a blocker in space, the center will release directly from the line of scrimmage and work toward the second level as opposed to pulling behind offensive linemen. Instead of losing ground to eventually gain ground, the Cardinals sometimes have their centers head straight for linebackers as you'll see in the image below.
On this play, Sendlein (No. 63), didn't need to pull around the back of left guard Mike Iupati to approach the path to his block. Instead, without someone lined up head up over him, Sendlein angled downfield which would have enabled a larger running lane if Iupati had held his block long enough.
If Boehm returns to the same form he had in the seasons prior to his ankle injury, he could develop into a more dependable downfield blocker because the Cardinals' scheme plays favorably into his skill set. Boehm is not a player who will likely ever be able to dominate blocks in open space, but if the team calls for him to reach the open field with quick releases off the ball, his chances of finding success increase dramatically.
Furthermore, the Cardinals' offensive scheme relies so heavily on centers to make the correct calls and checks that quite often, it is guards and tackles with more challenging responsibilities.
When it comes time for the Cardinals to choose a starter, we think Boehm has a great chance of earning the starting job because his detailed knowledge of the game, his A-gap dominance and his low-to-the-ground run blocking approach are tailor-made for the expectations the Cardinals have for their center.