For much of the 2016 season, it was injuries that derailed the Arizona Cardinals' capabilities along the offensive line. The team started three different players at left tackle, five different players at right guard and acquired multiple players who needed to make spot starts during the middle of the year.
That instability can wreak havoc on a lineman's confidence, because whether a player is a center, guard or tackle, knowing how to communicate and how to work in sync with the the man next to you is critical in ensuring an offensive line's success.
Over the past few years, guard Mike Iupati and tackle Jared Veldheer developed an obvious chemistry on the left side of the offensive line. While the pair has different strengths --Veldheer is a better pass blocker while Iupati is a superior run blocker-- their ability to play alongside one another helped Arizona develop rhythm along the offensive front.
When Veldheer went down with a season-ending injury in week eight, Iupati was forced to work with a pair of new offensive tackles over the final eight weeks of the season, and in 2016, his play suffered.
Reserve offensive lineman Earl Watford, meanwhile, was expected to be the Cardinals' swiss-army knife in 2016, plugging in and playing wherever the team needed him. A reserve with a broad skill set who can play center, guard or tackle, Watford has yet to prove he deserves a starting spot in the NFL, and his play this season suggested he still needs to make significant improvements to his game to earn more serious consideration as a starter.
Though 2016 was challenging for the Cardinals' offensive line because of injuries, the underwhelming play of two players who did stay healthy for most of the year also hurt the team's capabilities up front.
Iupati, Watford in 2016
Even though Iupati didn't live up to the high expectations he's helped set for himself with multiple Pro Bowl appearances, the Cardinals' starting left guard was still one of the team's top run blockers and its best pulling option among all of Arizona's linemen.
Iupati is at his best when he's on the move, pulling from left to right to open up holes for running back David Johnson, and in 2016, he continued to demonstrate he's one of the league's most physical pulling guards. However, Iupati wasn't as dominant when asked to stand his ground on the left side, and also struggled in pass blocking against faster defensive linemen.
When Iupati is run blocking, he's able to demonstrate impressive athleticism for his frame, but for whatever reason, that often doesn't carry over to his pass blocking, when he sometimes appears flat-footed and plays on his heels too often. That was the case in 2016, and it's why a player who makes about 10 times less than Iupati --center A.Q. Shipley-- was the Cardinals' most impressive lineman this season.
As for Watford, 2016 began as a season filled with opportunity, as he served as the team's sixth lineman entering the season and was the first man off the bench when right guard Evan Mathis went down early in the year with a season-ending injury. With all of the injuries that took place up front, this season could have provided a turning point in Watford's career, but instead, he was moved out of the rotation at various points due to inconsistent play.
One of Watford's main issues at the line of scrimmage this year was keeping his head up, as he often lost sight of the players he was trying to block which all too often led to whiffs at the point of attack. When Watford squared up, it was a beautiful sight. When Watford missed, it often led to a loss of yards for Arizona, and his play was simply too inconsistent for the team to count on in important situations.
Iupati, Watford in 2017
There's little doubt around the Cardinals' organization that Iupati has the capacity to bounce back in 2017 and return to his Pro Bowl form. He's a been-there, done-that kind of offensive lineman who carries a workmanlike attitude throughout the calendar year.
The Cardinals need Iupati to come back strong because he's under contract through 2020 and the team is paying him close to $10 million a year, which makes him one of the highest-paid guards in the NFL.
Watford, though, is a free agent and one the Cardinals may not consider bringing back to the fold. A former fourth round draft pick of the Cardinals, Watford has spent four seasons with Arizona in head coach Bruce Arians' offense and has yet to make the big strides the franchise was hoping to see out of him.
If Watford does return to the Cardinals in 2017, it will be because the team understands that Watford knows the system better than any reserve offensive linemen Arizona could find on the free agent market, and because he's versatile enough to play any position on the offensive line. Though Watford isn't ideally suited to any of the positions, the fact that he can plug in and play for an injured lineman at any point during the game is an important weapon to have, even if other reserves possess more talent and more refined skills than Watford does.