"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: Cole Toner
Contract status: 2016-$496,096, 2017-$586,096, 2018-$$676,096, 2019-$766,097
2015 season in review: Toner spent the 2015 season playing out his final season with the Harvard Crimson in the Ivy League. For the second straight season, Toner was named to the All-Ivy League first team and also earned an AP FCS All-America first team honor. Toner started at right tackle for the Crimson and parlayed his success into an invitation to the Reese's Senior Bowl and an invite to the NFL Combine. Though Harvard doesn't have a long reputation of sending players to the NFL, Toner's 6-foot-7 frame and numerous accolades accrued during his final two seasons on campus helped him to a fifth round selection.
Projected roster status: Entering the 2015 NFL Draft, Cardinals' head coach Bruce Arians said the Cardinals' recent success and talented roster would make it difficult for late round draft picks to make the cut this fall. Even though the Cardinals drafted according to need in the later rounds, Toner may have the most difficult of any draft pick in terms of making the active roster this season because of how Arians and general manager Steve Keim shape the team. Arizona will keep as many as nine offensive linemen on the 53-man roster, but if the unit is healthy heading into game days, Arians prefers the team keep two linemen inactive to save needed space for an extra receiver or defensive back. Unless Toner struggles mightily in fall camp, he should end up on the 53-man roster, but we think there's a less than 50-50 chance Toner will be active early in the season. Considering Earl Watford is versatile enough to provide depth at multiple positions and the loser of the starting center battle between A.Q. Shipley and Evan Boehm could still offer contributions, it's going to be difficult for a player outside of that trio who hasn't locked up a starting spot to stay active on game days.
Projected depth chart status: Even though the Cardinals lost three of their five starters from a season ago, it's highly unlikely Toner would compete for a starting job in year one. Furthermore, it would come as a surprise if Toner was one of the top two reserves on the depth chart as Watford and either Shipley or Boehm should be the No. 6 and the No. 7 linemen on the roster. The Cardinals' depth chart will almost certainly list Toner as a No. 2 player at a particular position, but if Toner is the No. 2 left guard and Watford is the No. 2 right guard and Mike Iupati suffers an injury, the coaching staff would probably eschew the depth chart and call on Watford to take Iupati's place. Because Arians prefers to keep seven linemen active on game days, it limits the team's depth and forces both of the reserves to learn multiple positions and plug in at different spots when called upon. So if Toner can crack the top seven in the rotation, he'll likely be viewed as the No. 2 option at a few spots, but we believe it's more likely Toner serves as the team's eighth or ninth lineman in what should be a transitional season for the rookie.
Moving forward: The slate is blank for Toner, a fifth round draft pick who will have an uphill climb to compete for playing time. No rookies are handed anything, but especially players selected late in the draft who are viewed as depth options. For Toner to carve out a future with the Arizona Cardinals, he'll need to impress the coaching staff in the opportunities he receives during his first few seasons to merit consideration as a long term option. As Arians loves to say, "you either get exposure or you get exposed," and during the first two to three years of Toner's career, reaping the benefits of his exposure will put him on management's radar.
Key skill: Flexibility on the interior
If you watch Toner's highlights from his senior season at Harvard, the majority of the plays are relatively uneventful passing plays where the Crimson right tackle is hardly challenged. It's a somewhat curious highlight tape, but considering Toner didn't play against elite competition, it's unsurprising that he would have little trouble handling defensive ends on passing downs.
One of the first things we noticed about Toner is that he doesn't bend with the same ease that other, more athletic linemen do. Toner sometimes stands upright in his pass blocks, and is a bit of a leaner in his run blocks. One of the primary questions surrounding his abilities is whether he has the flexibility and athleticism to block NFL-caliber defensive ends.
The Cardinals' decision to start Toner as a guard in rookie minicamp caught some by surprise, but we think it was a decision made with the goal of increasing Toner's overall versatility within Arizona's offense. It wouldn't come as a shock if Toner used the 2016 season as a "redshirt" year, especially considering the Cardinals were willing to sit Humphries for the entirety of the 2015 season and he was a first round draft pick.
For Toner to have success as a guard, and as an offensive lineman in general, within the Cardinals' scheme, he will need to improve his flexibility and refine his technique. In the image below, we see the initial movement Toner made off the snap on a running play at the goal line in a game last season.
It's hard for a player like Toner to establish leverage at the goal line because his 6-foot-7 frame means he's likely starting above the pad level of the defenders in front of him. Nevertheless, Toner has the fastest initial movement of any Harvard lineman here, which marks a great start to the play.
With the hep of his right guard, Toner executes a combo block and knocks the defensive tackle, No. 98, back from his placement at the line of scrimmage. This is normally the mark of a great block, especially considering Toner has the defensive tackle turning around away from the play. However, we noticed that as Toner is trying to finish off the block, he's leaning too far forward which is a result of standing straight up too quickly. If Toner kept his pads underneath him, he would be able to drive a defender who is basically giving himself up back into the goal line.
By the end of the play, it's Toner, not the defensive tackle, who is the player who ended up on his stomach. Even as the defensive tackle turned away from Toner, he lost his balance and fell to the ground. While Toner technically executed his assignment and freed up a running lane, he did so against a lackluster effort and without strong run blocking technique.
Part of the reason Toner may have struggled to execute this block because he can't bend as low as other linemen. Toner's lack of flexibility could become a long term issue for him if working with the Cardinals' strength and conditioning coaches doesn't produce improvements. While Toner's future may be at tackle, we think Arizona's decision to have him practice at guard could help speed the process of improving his run blocking technique and his flexibility on plays like this one, which are critical for a linemen to execute within the Cardinals' scheme.
Overall value: Because 2016 is Toner's rookie season, only time will tell whether or not he can provide value to the organization. While a first round pick from Humphries hurt the overall value the Cardinals could extract from him by sitting out his rookie season, keeping Toner off the field during his rookie year wouldn't deal Arizona much of a blow. In fact, the Cardinals are probably hoping they won't be forced into a situation where they will rely on a lineman transitioning from the Ivy League to the NFL because it would likely mean the team suffered a handful of injuries on the offensive line. The best time to evaluate the value Toner can provide to the Cardinals will come during his third and fourth seasons, as he's signed through 2019 and should have plenty of time to grow and develop within the team's offensive system.