When the Arizona Cardinals set their initial 53-man roster at the beginning of the season, the team took a gamble with its offensive line depth as general manager Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians failed to stock the roster with a true backup offensive tackle.
Though reserve offensive lineman Earl Watford is capable of playing tackle, Watford is better suited to play center or guard and likely would have struggled with speed off the edge if the Cardinals were put in a situation where Watford had to play on the edge of the line of scrimmage.
Arizona was banking on the health of left tackle Jared Veldheer and right tackle D.J. Humphries, who had never played an NFL game prior to this season. Though Veldheer is a polished veteran, there was legitimate concern based on his preseason play that Humphries wouldn't be able to withstand 16 games against the league's premier pass rushers.
However, it turned out that Humphries was the least of the Cardinals' worries.
In week eight, Veldheer suffered a torn tricep that landed him on injured reserve and left the Cardinals devoid of a true left tackle. In Veldheer's place, the team inserted journeyman offensive guard John Wetzel, a career practice squad player who had never appeared in an NFL game until this season.
Though Wetzel handled the tackle position adequately in his first few contests, teams began to expose his weaknesses, forcing the Cardinals to shift Humphries over to the left side of the line of scrimmage and insert reserve free agent acquisition Ulrick John on the right side.
The injury to Veldheer created a ripple effect on the Cardinals' offensive line, and it was not an injury the team was able to truly recover from during the second half of the year.
Veldheer and Wetzel in 2016
Though the Cardinals pay Veldheer upward of $10 million annually, he's never made a Pro Bowl and wasn't likely headed for a Pro Bowl appearance if he stayed healthy this season.
While Veldheer isn't a liability on the left side of the line of scrimmage, he's not providing the Cardinals with excellent value based on the structure of his contract and that held true during the early portion of the 2016 season. With Veldheer, veteran left guard Mike Iupati and an excellent running back in David Johnson, the Cardinals should theoretically be able to control the left side of the line of scrimmage in the run game much more than they've shown. Instead, Veldheer struggled to brush defensive ends and outside linebackers off the ball in 2016, and was often challenged to reach the second level of a defense on blocks.
Veldheer was still an adequate option for the Cardinals in 2016 and executed most of what he was asked to do seamlessly, but with the amount the franchise is paying him, Veldheer sometimes left the team wishing he was a more dominant force.
As for Wetzel, the career reserve has had a difficult time finding his way onto a regular season roster, but he proved in 2016 that he was capable of serving as a backup and a spot replacement on a game-to-game basis. What's unfortunate for Wetzel is that the Cardinals asked him to go above and beyond his role, as he played tackle for much of the season when he's really a guard, and he played more often than he likely ever anticipated due to injuries.
Wetzel isn't ever going to develop into a full-time NFL starter, but with the versatility he displayed in 2016, he proved he belongs as a seventh or eighth offensive lineman on a roster moving forward.
Veldheer and Wetzel in 2017
With two years left on Veldheer's contract, the Cardinals are now in an interesting situation as the team's left tackle of the future, Humphries, appears ready to make the transition back to his natural spot at the line of scrimmage. Though Humphries is certainly capable of sticking it out at right tackle until Veldheer's contract expires following the 2018 season, the Cardinals know Humphries has greater upside as a left tackle and could provide an instant bump in production in the run game on powers and leads if he teams up with Iupati.
Veldheer has stated publicly that he wants to remain at left tackle, protecting Arizona's quarterback's blind side, but if the Cardinals can determine a way to save money by moving Humphries to the left side and finding a capable fill-in on the right, Veldheer could become a trade candidate or could wind up being cut, depending on the hit the Cardinals' would take to their salary cap. Sure, that's an extreme situation, but it's a distinct possibility because the Cardinals know they can maximize Humphries' value on the left side of the line of scrimmage while he has two years left on his rookie contract.
In Wetzel's situation, if the Cardinals don't attempt to re-sign him this offseason, he will likely find himself with another franchise battling for a role as a seventh or eighth offensive lineman. There simply aren't enough quality offensive linemen to go around in the NFL, and with the tape Wetzel produced in 2016, he should be able to find a role on a roster whether it's right out of the gates next season or if it comes after a team starts losing linemen due to injuries. With Wetzel's versatility, he should have a spot to play somewhere in 2017.