With a wealth of talent at other spots on the roster, 2016 might have been the right season for the Arizona Cardinals to take a gamble and keep a smaller number of reserve offensive linemen on the 53-man roster.
Considering backup Earl Watford has the positional flexibility to play center, guard and tackle, the Cardinals may have considered keeping just seven or eight offensive linemen, but general manager Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians ultimately decided to list nine linemen on the team's roster.
Despite improvements from draft choices Evan Boehm and Cole Toner throughout the preseason, Arians is often reluctant to play rookies early in the season. Because of that, Arizona has a full compliment of offensive linemen to choose from in a season in which the team is replacing three starters up front.
Jared Veldheer: A seventh-year player out of Hillsdale College, Veldheer is one of the anchors of Arizona's offensive line and has started all 32 games since his arrival prior to the 2014 season. Veldheer is a cut below All-Pro offensive tackles, but the Cardinals like his athleticism and are happy with his current weight of 320 pounds, which has fluctuated during his two seasons in Arizona. Veldheer is solid, consistent, and technical in his approach against edge rushers, so the Cardinals have no qualms about lining him up to protect Carson Palmer's blind side.
Mike Iupati: A former first round pick of the San Francisco 49ers, Iupati is one of the top run blockers in the NFL and one of the most athletic interior offensive linemen in the league. What Iupati may lack as a pass blocker, he more than makes up for with his ability to lead through running lanes on pull blocks for the Cardinals' running backs. Arians loves calling power runs to the right side of the lane to allow Iupati the opportunity to swing through the lane and wall off a linebacker, and Iupati's collisions are often among the most violent you'll see on a given play. If the Cardinals need a yard or two on third down, running an iso play behind the left side of the line is the best bet because of Iupati's pure strength and fast get-off at the snap.
A.Q. Shipley: A fifth-year center out of Penn State, Shipley has started at least three games in all four of his professional seasons yet has never started more than nine contests in a given year. From the outset of camp, Arians said the center job was Shipley's to lose, and even though the Cardinals spent their fourth round draft choice on Boehm, the team never entertained a serious competition. Shipley is a below average pass blocker who gives up too much ground and can get bull rushed by defensive tackles, but a good pre-snap communicator who does his best work on running plays. Boehm has a much higher ceiling than Shipley, but the Cardinals don't think he's ready to play yet.
Evan Mathis: Mathis was on the doorstep to retirement during the offseason after securing a Super Bowl title with the Denver Broncos last year, but his competitive spirit reemerged when the Cardinals came calling for a right guard. While Mathis has spent much of his career at left guard and earned a reputation as one of the league's elite run blockers, his age and recent struggles with durability are question marks heading into the season for Arizona. When healthy, there's no doubt Mathis makes the Cardinals' offensive line a better unit, but he missed training camp practices with fatigue and has played through pain in recent years.
D.J. Humphries: The biggest boom or bust option on the Cardinals' offensive line is the 2015 first round draft choice who sat out all of last season as Arians essentially gave him a redshirt year. Humphries arrived at fall camp last season out of shape and lacked a consistent drive to compete, but those days appear to be behind him. While Humphries possesses a prototypical frame for an offensive tackle, he struggled with speed rushes and against stunts in the preseason. Humphries proved he could handle most edge rushes during training camp, but he'll still need to improve on his consistency this year.
Earl Watford: The primary backup at both guard positions and at center for the Cardinals, Watford is among the top reserve offensive linemen in the NFL. Arizona should have no concerns about starting Watford for a handful of games if a key player went down with an injury, because he's familiar with the team's offense and has the versatility to plug in and play at just about every position on the offensive line. Arians even looked at Watford as the starting left tackle in the fourth preseason game, but Watford is ideally suited to play on the interior of the line.
Evan Boehm: One of the most improved players during the preseason for the Cardinals, we think Boehm has the capabilities of overtaking Shipley for the starting center job by the middle of the season. Center is a critical spot on the offensive line in terms of communication and on-the-fly adjustments, and that's likely why Boehm is still behind Shipley. He plays with a powerful base, is agile on pass blocks, and does a really nice job getting out on screen plays and setting lead blocks. Learning the nuances of the position within the Cardinals' scheme is likely what's holding Boehm back at this point.
Cole Toner: When Toner arrived in camp, he looked physically overwhelmed by defensive linemen in both run and pass blocking situations, and we weren't sure if he was going to end up on the final roster or on the Cardinals' practice squad. Three weeks into camp, Toner had completely transformed as a player, and looked much more comfortable, especially as a run blocker. The key differences for Toner were improving his flexibility and playing with a lower pad level, and though he still has a long ways to go in terms of his development, he proved he belongs on the Cardinals' team this season.
John Wetzel: Wetzel outperformed fellow reserve tackle Rob Crisp during training camp, but both players faced significant struggles as pass blockers against edge rushers for most of training camp. By the third and fourth preseason games, Wetzel had clearly separated himself as the superior of the two options, and with the Cardinals searching for depth at tackle, he became a viable option to make the roster. It's unlikely the Cardinals would feel comfortable starting Wetzel against an above average or elite pass rusher, but if the Cardinals need a player to fill in for Veldheer or Humphries over the course of a game, Wetzel is the team's best bet.