"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: Mike Iupati
Experience: 7th NFL season
Contract status: 2016-$5,700,000, 2017-$9,200,000, 2018-$9,200,000, 2019-$9,200,000
2015 season quick review: In his first season with the Arizona Cardinals, the divisional transplant who left the San Francisco 49ers started 13 games and developed a reputation as one of the team's best run blockers. Iupati's presence was critical for the Cardinals' offensive line considering veteran center Lyle Sendlein has struggled as a run blocker in recent years, so putting Sendlein next to one of the league's best run blockers immediately boosted the team's production. Iupati did experience a midseason scare as he left a game against the Seattle Seahawks in an ambulance with a concussion and an apparent neck injury, but Iupati returned to the lineup down the stretch and gave the Cardinals the type of production they were hoping for when they made him the second-highest paid offensive lineman on the roster.
Projected roster status: There is no doubt Iupati will make the team and serve as one of the most important linemen on the Cardinals' roster as he's one of just two returning starters to an offensive line hoping to mesh quickly this fall.
Projected depth chart status: Iupati and 10-year NFL veteran Evan Mathis will serve as the two starting offensive guards for Arizona, with Iupati starting on the left side of the line and Mathis on the right side. It is worth noting that Mathis spent much of his career at left guard, so if the team feels it needs to balance out the line a bit more and put the more versatile Iupati on the opposite side of the line from starting left tackle Jared Veldheer, Arizona could look into that. However, that's probably unlikely and reports from Cardinals' OTAs suggest the Cardinals like having the veteran Mathis on the right side at guard to tutor right tackle D.J. Humphries.
Position group analysis: The Cardinals are deeper at offensive guard this season than they were a year ago as the team signed Mathis in the offseason and also traded away Jonathan Cooper. We believe this is a net upgrade for Arizona, which also brings back a versatile veteran in Earl Watford to provide depth. The Cardinals dress seven offensive linemen on game days, so their reserves must be able to play multiple positions, but so far, one of the top candidates to serve as a reserve lineman is fifth round draft pick Cole Toner and Toner began rookie camp practicing at guard after playing tackle in college at Harvard.
Moving forward: In inking Iupati to a five-year deal, the Cardinals made the respected run blocker one of their highest-paid players and one of their top priorities. Iupati is signed through 2019, which is second only to cornerback Patrick Peterson who is signed through 2020. By extending Iupati a five-year contract, the Cardinals probably tendered the offer with the hope Iupati would finish his career with Arizona, as the left guard will be 32 years old in 2019 with 10 years of NFL experience under his belt. So long as Iupati remains healthy, he figures to remain one of the most pivotal pieces on Arizona's offensive line.
Key skill: Pulling in space
It's no secret that Iupati's run blocking skills are superior to his pass blocking abilities, and the Cardinals attempt to maximize the 6-foot-5, 331-pounder's athleticism by sending him on the move.
On Arizona's zone and gap blocking run plays, Iupati is often asked to pull from his left guard position to the play side to set up a running lane by leading through on the first defender who shows in his gap. In the image below, we see a pre-snap alignment from a play featuring the Cardinals' offense against the Philadelphia Eagles' defense.
After the snap, Iupati immediately pulls to the right as Arizona hopes to isolate him against the Eagles' play side linebacker. The goal here is for Arizona to use a man-in-zone blocking scheme in which each player blocks the man in the zone in front of them, except for the right tackle, who will execute a combo block with the right guard and then work to the second level of the defense. Because the right tackle is not expected to block the linebacker aligned in front of him, he becomes Iupati's man when he pulls to the play side.
The linebacker in front of Iupati shows the slightest bit of hesitation in reading the blocks taking place, and because of that, it allows Iupati to gain momentum as he heads toward the running lane. As you can see, Iupati will match up with the play side linebacker in between tight end Darren Fells and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald in an effort to create a clear path for the ball carrier, David Johnson. If the linebacker stepped up into the hole instead of waiting for Iupati to approach, he could have redirected the path of Johnson and forced him to cut up inside of Fells. Now, the Cardinals have the physically imposing Iupati rumbling toward a mismatch.
With a full head of steam, Iupati pancakes the Eagles' linebacker to the ground and clears the way for Johnson who cuts on a dime and slices past Fitzgerald for a six-yard gain. If Fitzgerald widened out his blocker a step or two more, Johnson may have been able to break off a 10-plus-yard run. But instead, the Eagles' backside pursuit arrived just in time to take Johnson down.
Iupati's size and athleticism is a huge asset for Arizona's running game, and his skill set is one that lends itself well to head coach Bruce Arians' offensive philosophy.
Overall value: As we discussed in our "Making the cut" piece on Veldheer, even though the Cardinals' starting left tackle is among the five highest-paid players on the roster, Veldheer is just the ninth highest-paid left tackle in the NFL, so there's a demonstrated premium put on players who can protect a quarterback's blind side. The same cannot be said about offensive guards, where only four players are making upward of $8 million this season. Iupati checks in as the 10th highest-paid offensive guard in the NFL with a salary worth $5,700,000 this season. That salary is relatively indicative of the type of player Iupati is as he's one of the league's best run blockers but leaves a little to be desired as a pass blocker. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, Iupati stands to become the second highest-paid offensive guard in the NFL next season, and though we think he's a top 10-to-12 guard in the league, his pass blocking deficiencies hurt him from becoming truly elite. So while Iupati's contract is reasonable and valuable for the Cardinals in the 2016 season, it's unlikely the team will realize excellent value from their starting left guard during the final three years of his contract.