"Making the Cut"
As the Arizona Cardinals begin their quest to cut the team's roster size from 90 to 53 by the end of the preseason, we're taking a look at the key players at each position group and determining their odds of making the final cut.
Player: Jared Veldheer
Experience: 7th NFL season
Contract status: 2016-$9,000,000 2017-$8,250,000, 2018-$8,250,000
2015 season quick review: For the second straight season, Veldheer started all 16 games for the Cardinals at left tackle and served as one of the most important contributors on the offensive line. Veldheer's acquisition in 2014 brought immediate stability to a Cardinals offensive line that struggled prior to his arrival. Last season, Veldheer and left guard Mike Iupati were among the most successful tackle-guard duos in the league and quarterback Carson Palmer openly campaigned for Veldheer to make his first Pro Bowl. Though Veldheer missed out on the honor, he is the Cardinals' highest-paid offensive lineman, attracting more attention for his strong play, and has at least three more seasons with Arizona to earn a coveted Pro Bowl honor.
Projected roster status: The Arizona Cardinals view Veldheer as one of their essential pieces on the offensive line, and even with the highest contract of any lineman on the roster this season, the team would not consider cutting him to save salary space.
Projected depth chart status: Veldheer is the top offensive tackle on the Cardinals' roster, and because Palmer is a right-handed quarterback, Veldheer serves as the No. 1 left tackle on the depth chart and protects Palmer's blind side. Veldheer is also the only tackle with significant starting experience on the roster, as the team will count on former first round draft pick D.J. Humphries to start at right tackle.
Position group analysis: The Cardinals are not deep at offensive tackle, and an injury to Veldheer could devastate the group and perhaps force management into considering a trade. Though things are not dire for Arizona because most of the tackles on the roster are simply inexperienced, the team needs production and consistency from Veldheer because he and Iupati are the only two returning starters at a position group where continuity is important.
Moving forward: The Cardinals have clearly prioritized keeping Veldheer on their starting unit for years to come as the organization signed its left tackle to a five-year, $35 million contract two seasons ago. By the time Veldheer finishes out his current contract, he'll be 31 years old and the team will be able to reevaluate the future of its offensive line. This season, the Cardinals brought 34-year-old and 10-year NFL veteran Evan Mathis aboard to start at right guard on a one-year, $4 million deal, so if Veldheer strings together a few more successful seasons, the franchise has made it clear it still values veteran players who can play at a high level.
Key skill: Mirroring edge rushers
One of the most difficult assignments for offensive tackles is slowing down edge pass rushers who have excellent quick-twitch movements, a variety of moves and outstanding speed to turn the corner and take down a quarterback. As the Cardinals' left tackle, Veldheer often has to hold his blocks longer than tackles on other teams because Arizona insists on taking downfield shots and needs the time for those plays to develop.
A successful offensive tackle is able to mirror pass rushers and edge players with quick feet and strong upper body movements that help establish leverage against rushers. Veldheer's success with the Cardinals is enabled by his strong footwork, and he's one of a handful of offensive tackles that really understands the delicate balance between giving ground at the line of scrimmage when setting up in pass protection, but attacking and delivering blows when necessary.
In the image below, we see the pre-snap alignment of a pass play for the Cardinals' offense against the Seattle Seahawks defense.
As you can see, the Seahawks have seven players in the box and the Cardinals don't have a back in to aid with pass protection. This means the edge rushers will likely encounter one-on-one situations with tackles at the line of scrimmage, and if they beat their man, they could have a free path to the quarterback.
In this situation, Veldheer recognizes the alignment of the edge rusher in a 7-technique, and a defensive tackle in a 1-technique. With Iupati uncovered at left guard, Iupati will wait to see if a blitzing linebacker attacks his side of the line of scrimmage before he's able to help the Cardinals' other offensive linemen. Knowing that help may be coming, Veldheer gives ground upon the snap and forces the Seahawks pass rusher to the outside to prevent him from ripping through toward the B-gap. This buys Iupati time to assess the Seahawks' rush, and eventually, he comes out to help Veldheer with his block.
By riding the pass rusher toward the outside, Veldheer allows himself to square up his shoulders toward the pass rusher while waiting for Iupati's help to arrive. Once Iupati aids Veldheer, Palmer can step up in the pocket, and Veldheer can finish off a clean block. As you can see, Veldheer has all the leverage in this situation as the pass rusher is standing straight up and down with Veldheer's arms engaged in his chest.
Veldheer ultimately finishes off the block by driving his feet forward and turning the pass rusher to the outside. Palmer is able to step up and deliver a 30-yard pass downfield toward Michael Floyd that was all set up because he had a clean pocket to work with.
When Veldheer assesses defensive fronts at the line of scrimmage, he does a nice job in knowing where the pocket will set up and where he needs to give ground with his feet to re-establish leverage against a defender rushing toward him. In this case, Veldheer knew he might have help coming because Iupati didn't have a rusher coming his way, so he bought time by forcing the edge rusher to an outside lane where the edge rusher wouldn't have a chance of making it to the quarterback in time.
Overall value: Offensive tackle, specifically left tackle, has gained a reputation as one of the NFL's most important positions in recent years and has received far more scrutiny than ever before. As the game of football undergoes philosophical and schematic shifts that have made shotgun offenses standard and spread offense principles common throughout the league, protecting the quarterback's blind side has become an essential task for offensive linemen and current contracts reflect the premium put on talent at offensive tackle. The Cardinals have elected to make Veldheer their highest-paid offensive lineman, and although Iupati will surpass Veldheer next season, Veldheer has backed up his contract with excellent play during his two seasons with the franchise. It's easy to look at Veldheer's $35 million contract and note that he's the fifth-highest paid player on the Cardinals' roster and think that to provide value to the franchise that merits that status, Veldheer should be a perennial Pro Bowl selection. However, while Veldheer is the fifth-highest paid Cardinal, he's only the ninth-highest paid offensive tackle in the league. In 2017 and in 2018, Veldheer's annual salary will drop and he'll likely fall out of the top 10 highest paid offensive tackles, so to receive production that even merits consideration for a Pro Bowl spot suggests Veldheer is living up to the value of his contract. In a year in which the Cardinals need stability up front to withstand the loss of three starters, the pressure will be on Veldheer to once again anchor Arizona's offensive line.