"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: Earl Watford
Experience: 4th NFL season
Contract status: $783,716
2015 season quick review: After spending the first two seasons of his career strictly as a reserve offensive lineman, Watford played in eight games last season and started the first two contests of his career for the Cardinals. The former fourth round draft pick out of James Madison began the 2015 season at right tackle due to a suspension imposed upon starter Bobby Massie, and that's the position at which Watford made his first two starts. Later on in the season, Watford suffered a hand injury and the Cardinals elected to place him on injured reserve, effectively ending his season in early December. Though Watford was not active for the Cardinals' playoff run, he is back with the team on the final year of his rookie contract.
Projected roster status: Watford's competition for a roster spot was likely more difficult last season than it will be in 2016 simply because the Cardinals are short on offensive linemen with NFL experience. There's a real possibility Arizona starts two players in Evan Boehm and D.J. Humphries who have never played a down in an NFL game, and even though Watford has appeared in just 18 games in his career, that's the most of any Cardinals' offensive lineman who won't compete for a starting role. Head coach Bruce Arians values versatility among his offensive linemen, and because Watford has practiced at center, guard and tackle during his career with the Cardinals, Watford probably has a leg up on competitors like Taylor Boggs and some of the undrafted free agents Arizona brought in to battle for a roster spot. We believe Watford will become the team's top reserve this season, as he could plug in at any spot on the offensive line when called upon.
Projected depth chart status: Even though we projected Watford to make the team and participate as a member of the active roster, we don't anticipate Watford to compete for a starting role. Watford is somewhat of a 'tweener in terms of his size and athleticism, which is beneficial for a player looking for a roster spot but not necessarily for one hoping for a starting role. The two positions where Watford could hope to compete for a starting job are center and right tackle, where Arizona has inexperienced options lining the depth chart. Ultimately, Watford is probably the No. 2 option at a handful of spots, which means in the event of an injury, he could find himself in the starting lineup.
Position group analysis: Watford is technically listed as an offensive guard, but because he practices at different positions, it's difficult to peg him at just one spot. Last year, Watford started at right tackle and this spring, Watford has reportedly played well at center during OTAs. In lieu of analyzing the guard spot as a whole, it's important to consider the broader picture of the offensive line when analyzing Watford's chances of making the roster. Arizona is losing three of its five starters from a season ago, and though we believe the team will improve at center and could eventually improve significantly at right tackle if Humphries comes into his own, it may take time for the Cardinals' offensive line to gel. Watford is the type of player who could speed that process, as his knowledge of the offensive system in his fourth year with the team is stronger than other reserve options, and his ability to play multiple positions is a bonus. Perhaps an undrafted free agent along the offensive line possesses more potential than Watford, but if that's the case, we believe such a player would have to be a near certain improvement to surpass a player like Watford because the Cardinals' could use his schematic familiarity in a year marked by change.
Moving forward: While Watford is set to play his fourth season with the Cardinals, his future with the organization likely depends on his performance and role this season. The James Madison product is playing out the final season of his rookie contract and has just two starts over the first three seasons of his career. At this point, Watford may not have the tools to develop into a starter-caliber player, or if he does, that opportunity may not present itself in Arizona. A lot of different factors will play into whether or not Watford will be back with the Cardinals' next fall, but if the team and the player like what they have going after this season, Watford likely won't cost the franchise much and his knowledge of Arizona's system is a plus.
Key skill: Versatility
The Arizona Cardinals are a member of the group of NFL teams that prefers to dress seven offensive linemen as opposed to eight on game days and their status in that group is thanks to the coaching philosophy of Arians. In lieu of keeping eight linemen active, Arians prioritizes adding an extra wide receiver or defensive back to the roster almost exclusively for special teams purposes.
Because of this, the Cardinals have placed a premium on versatility among their offensive linemen. If a reserve can't play multiple positions, that players is unlikely to add value to the team and subsequently will have a much more difficult challenge in making the cut.
Watford is an example of a player who provides the type of positional versatility the Cardinals look for, as Arians loves players who can play all three positions on the line. The team is in search for players who have the athleticism to play tackle and the toughness and smarts to play center, and Arizona's fifth round draft choice of Cole Toner is reflective of this notion. Though Toner started at right tackle at Harvard, he participated in pre-draft workouts at center and has begun his career with the Cardinals as an offensive guard.
Watford is of the same mold, and it's a primary reason why the Cardinals have kept him on the active roster for much of the last two years. Even though Watford hasn't been presented with the opportunity to start full-time, he has performed well in a variety of roles when called upon which is essential for a reserve lineman.
Overall value: Organizations hope that every draft pick pans out and becomes a contributor at some point or another during their careers, but that's not always the case. Watford was the second pick of the fourth round in 2013, and while there were players drafted behind him who became starters for other franchises, it's difficult to say the Cardinals lost value with Watford's selection. Selections made on day three of the NFL Draft are so hit-and-miss that finding production from a player like Watford is a nice boost for an organization. Because year four of a player's career typically represents the final year of their rookie contract, it is in many cases the make-or-break year for a player in Watford's position. If Watford can serve as the team's sixth offensive lineman and primary backup at a number of spots, or even flourish in a starting role if the Cardinals are hit with an injury, Arizona would likely be satisfied with the contributions Watford provides considering his cap hit is still relatively small.