"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.
Age: Boehm: 22, Shipley: 30
Experience: Boehm: Rookie, Shipley: 5th season
Contract status: Boehm: 2016-$576,620, 2017-$666,620, 2018-$756,620, 2019-$846,623, Shipley: 2016-$835,000
2015 season quick review: Shipley spent the 2015 season with the Cardinals as a reserve lineman after playing the first three seasons of his career with the Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts. Shipley made three starts last season when the Cardinals were thin on the offensive line, and head coach Bruce Arians entered the offseason expressing confidence in the idea Shipley could assume the starting center position vacated by long-time starter Lyle Sendlein. Boehm spent last year with the Missouri Tigers as the ironman set the career record for consecutive starts with 52 despite suffering a high ankle sprain early in the season. Though Boehm's mobility was limited and his effectiveness suffered as a result of the injury, he was touted as one of the smartest offensive linemen in the draft this year and the Cardinals selected him to open up the competition at center.
Projected roster status: With team management expecting both Boehm and Shipley to compete for the starting job, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which either player is cut. The Cardinals certainly won't release Boehm, a fourth round draft pick who has plenty of potential to become an NFL-caliber starter, and it would come as a surprise if the team did not keep Shipley because Arizona is low on reserve linemen with NFL experience and he has 22 career starts under his belt.
Projected depth chart status: One of these two players will end up as the Cardinals' starter at center, while the other will likely be either the sixth or seventh offensive lineman on the team and be asked to provide depth at both center and guard. Because of roster limitations, NFL teams can't provide a true two-deep at each position along the offensive line, so the person who loses out on the starting role will need to know multiple positions in the event of an injury to a Cardinals' starter. If Boehm is back to full health after playing through a difficult injury last fall, we think he has the skill set to step in and start on day one as a rookie, but head coach Bruce Arians is often hesitant to play rookies right out of the gate so Shipley could have the inside track on the job at least for the first half of the season.
Position group analysis: Though Sendlein started for the Cardinals at center for eight straight seasons, we think the competition between Boehm and Shipley will net Arizona's offense with a more productive and more versatile center. After watching Shipley compete last season, the confidence Arians showed in his play proved the Cardinals were not afraid to part ways with Sendlein, which is an indication the team already believed it was improving at the position. Now that Boehm has entered the fold and will challenge for a starting spot, we believe Arizona will begin the season with a superior run blocker at center regardless of who ultimately wins the job.
Moving forward: Even though Boehm was a fourth round selection, there's no doubt Arians and general manager Steve Keim are excited about the potential the four-year college starter brings to the Cardinals' offense. Keim said Boehm was one of a very small group of draft-eligible players who received a "double-A" from the Cardinals' scouts in terms of his football character and his off-the-field character, and that's exactly the type of player the organization believes can thrive in the team's system. If all goes according to plan for the Cardinals, Boehm will become the center of the future and start for this team for years to come. Nevertheless, the developmental process may take some time, so the Cardinals have Shipley in the fold in the event Boehm does not pan out as expected. At 30 years old, Shipley may never develop into a consistent NFL starter, but the Cardinals do recognize the value he brings the team in a year where much of the offensive line is experiencing significant change.
Key skill: Controlling the A-gap
While left tackles have become the most glorified offensive linemen in recent years, centers still have incredibly challenging jobs as they set the offensive line and make pre-snap calls based on defensive alignments. A great center is arguably just as valuable as a great left tackle, and in recent years, the Cardinals haven't enjoyed the benefits of having an elite player controlling the A-gaps up front.
Aside from creating edge pressure outside of tackles, defenses are often most effective blitzing one or two players through the A-gaps, especially on stunts. Centers must beware of shifting defensive alignments, must possess excellent lateral quickness, and must be able to diagnose defensive play calls as soon as or faster than their fellow offensive linemen.
Boehm is an example of a center who dominated the A-gaps in college, as his toughness was on display throughout his four-year career. Even if Boehm lost leverage at the line of scrimmage or was put in a compromised position, Boehm was strong in recovery and packs a physical punch.
In the image below, we see a pre-snap alignment of a play featuring Boehm's Missouri Tigers against Arkansas State.
As you can see, Boehm has a defensive tackle lined up in a 1-technique to his right, with a linebacker head up over him about four yards off the ball. In this scenario, Boehm must be aware of the movements of a handful of players, including the 5-technique on the left side of the defensive line who could stunt or slant toward the A-gap.
With a basic four-man pressure from Arkansas State, Boehm recognizes there are no immediate threats to the A-gap and he can take off and execute his assignment. On this play, Missouri is running a quarterback draw and sending both Boehm and its running back up the middle to lead block for its quarterback, so without an immediate threat to the A-gap, Boehm can move down the field toward the linebacker and execute his block.
After receiving a free release downfield, Boehm has no trouble executing his block as he actually blows the Arkansas State linebacker a yard back from his pre-snap alignment. Though the linebacker was not blitzing, it's still impressive for Boehm to knock the linebacker backward considering the amount of time and open space the linebacker had to work with.
This play demonstrates Boehm's ability to not just control the A-gap, but to extend the A-gap down the field. As a center, Boehm has to be aware of any and all challengers to the A-gap on a play like this, because if he leaves his position at the line of scrimmage too early, Boehm leaves the A-gap vulnerable to penetration from a late blitz or a stunting defensive linemen. Once Boehm realizes all defensive linemen are accounted for, he uses his quickness to work down the field and ensure a free running lane for the Tigers' quarterback.
Overall value: Considering the importance of offensive line calls and checks at the line of scrimmage and the fact neither Shipley nor Boehm will receive a contract upward of $1 million this season, the Cardinals have the opportunity to realize great value from their center. Sendlein performed admirably during his career with the organization, but during his final few seasons, Arizona wasn't winning battles in the A-gap the way it needed to in order to have an elite interior running game. If Boehm or Shipley develops into a consistent producer as a run blocker and compliments those abilities with decent pass blocking skills, Arizona will have a competent starting center without paying that player a large amount of money. Furthermore, the team could recognize great value if Boehm develops into the starting center, because Arizona waited until the fourth round of the draft to select him which is a spot in the draft where selections are so often hit-or-miss.