The Arizona Cardinals entered the 2016 NFL Draft with a clear strategy for addressing the team's needs, and by the looks of it, general manager Steve Keim executed the organization's game plan.
The Cardinals are deep at skill positions on offense, so the team elected to pursue defensive playmakers and offensive linemen to add depth to a team coming off a 13-3 season and an NFC Championship game appearance.
Though Keim and head coach Bruce Arians used four of the team's six draft picks on defensive players, the remaining two selections were devoted to becoming stronger on the offensive line, which is exactly where the Cardinals felt they needed to find difference-makers.
One of the main storylines heading into the 2016 campaign is how Arizona's offense deals with three new starters along the offensive front, but a subplot of this development is how the team builds its unit behind the starting five.
Keim and Arians set about addressing the priority of adding depth to the offensive line in the fourth round of the draft with the selection of Missouri center Evan Boehm, who figures to compete for a starting job in fall camp.
After drafting Boehm, the organization made a lower-profile move, but one that could turn out to be just as important. In the fifth round, Keim and Arians took a chance on Harvard offensive lineman Cole Toner, who primarily played right tackle for the Crimson but could be depended on to fill multiple roles for the Cardinals.
Toner's selection is a reflection of the Cardinals' emphasis on versatility, especially considering how the team uses its offensive linemen on game days. While some NFL teams dress eight offensive linemen for games, the Cardinals prefer to dress seven, which means if one player goes down with an injury, the team's reserves must be able to plug in and play at nearly any position on the line to avoid having to make significant personnel shifts in the middle of a game.
At 6-foot-5 and 305 pounds, Toner has the frame and athletic background to play multiple positions on the line, and that's what Arians expects Toner to do for the Cardinals' offense.
"I love the way he (Toner) competed at the Senior Bowl," Arians said. "He has position flexibility, he's obviously very smart, we feel like he's a three-position guy. When you're dressing seven guys, and we only dress seven linemen on Sundays, he'll compete because of his position flexibility. We'll get him stronger, and he'll play a little tackle."
How He Fits
Despite spending most of his senior season at right tackle at Harvard, Toner began Cardinals' rookie minicamp on Friday at a different spot. Arizona assigned Toner No. 61, which is a number reserved for offensive guards.
The decision to start incorporating Toner at guard is probably reflective of how the team wants to train Toner within the Cardinals' scheme. In our evaluation of Toner's senior film, we noted one of Toner's best aspects as a tackle was ability to set the pocket when pass-blocking against edge rushers.
Toner played tackle out of a two-point stance for much of his career at Harvard, so it's natural the Cardinals want Toner to develop his skills and comfort level with playing out of a three-point stance as a guard.
We think this transition could help facilitate a quicker learning curve for Toner because one of his weaknesses at Harvard was playing with a high pad level. Playing out of a three-point stance should help Toner fire off the ball faster at the snap, and while he refines his quick-twitch reflexes, Toner can focus on keeping his pads down and squaring up with the defender in front of him.
Toner was effective as a pass blocker at Harvard because he consistently beat defenders looking for outside leverage to their rush lanes. In the image below, we see how Toner's movement at the snap is a split-second faster than his fellow linemen, and this reaction time often helped Toner establish leverage.
The concern for Toner at the NFL level is that he will give ground too quickly at the snap, and the dominant edge rushers he will eventually face could have the ability to rip inside to the C-gap and collapse the pocket or overpower Toner with a bullrush because he has a tendency to sit back on his heels and stand upright.
In the image below, we see what happens when a pass rusher uses his hands to establish control against Toner. Toner ends up coiling back too far, standing upright and losing too much ground, which is something NFL pass rushers can exploit.
As a tackle, Toner was often able to avoid the issue we see above of losing leverage because he mirrored defenders well with his feet and rode them to the outside, which allowed his quarterback to step up in the pocket and deliver a pass.
If Toner ends up working as a tackle with the Cardinals, he will need to develop faster feet to counter the quicker movements of edge defenders, but if he succeeds in his skill development, Toner's blocks should look like they do in the image below where defenders need to rush so far outside their track to the quarterback becomes significantly more difficult.
Toner may never have the advanced skill set or the quickness to become a full-time starter in the NFL because of questions about his speed and flexibility, but the Cardinals won't look for Toner to start.
The Cardinals' goal of drafting a player like Toner is for the team to take advantage of a lineman who can do a little bit of everything, and possesses the requisite knowledge to learn and play multiple positions.
As we mentioned earlier, one of the most important factors to remember in monitoring Toner's progress is the fact the Cardinals' prefer to keep seven linemen active on game days. If the team believes Toner can ultimately step in and be serviceable as a center, guard or tackle should a lineman suffer an injury or need an extended breather, then Toner will find himself suiting up on game days.
If Toner's development takes time, we could see the Cardinals keep him on the 53-man roster but list him as one of the team's inactive players on game day or put him on the practice squad and allow him to focus the entire season on learning three positions.
Ultimately, the selection of Toner is less about the Cardinals' scheme and more about team needs. Keim and Arians depend on players who can fill multiple roles to maximize the team's schematic versatility, and Toner knows his success with the organization is dependent on learning and filling those roles.
"I definitely think I can be a guard," Toner said. "I think I can play anywhere, really. If they have injuries, I think I can step in at tackle for sure. I can play guard and I can even play center, if possible. I haven't played center in college, but I started snapping this offseason and I feel really comfortable doing that."