Heading into the 2015 season, Arizona Cardinals' head coach Bruce Arians wasn't quite sure what to do about the team's center position.
Arians wasn't comfortable with the options Arizona had on its depth chart, and wasn't sure how the team was going to fare without long-time starter Lyle Sendlein anchoring the middle of the offensive line.
So instead of parting ways with Sendlein, Arians brought him in for one final season, giving the Texas product one final opportunity to start for his hometown Cardinals.
In the process of doing so, Arians passed over reserve offensive lineman A.Q. Shipley, who was battling for the starting job. Shipley was resigned to serving as a reserve in 2015, but somewhere along the way, he caught Arians' eye.
In 2016, the starting center job was once again up for grabs in Arizona. However, even though Arians entertained the idea of having Shipley, fellow reserve Earl Watford and fourth round draft choice Evan Boehm compete for the role, the job was only open in theory.
In actuality, Shipley started training camp as the first team center, and Arians never wavered from his commitment to keeping him in that spot. Though Shipley had started just 22 career games entering the 2016 season, he was the clear front-runner for the starting job, and by the middle of the preseason, the competition was all but over.
Shipley, Boehm in 2016
Though he entered the year facing skepticism based on the level of play he demonstrated during the first four seasons of his NFL career, Shipley rose to the occasion in 2016, becoming the Cardinals' top offensive lineman.
On a team that began the season with former Pro Bowl guards Mike Iupati and Evan Mathis, a multi-year starter at left tackle Jared Veldheer, and a former first round draft pick at right tackle D.J. Humphries, Shipley was the only lineman to start all 16 games for the Cardinals in 2016, and he was far and away the team's most player in the trenches.
An improvement over Sendlein as a pass blocker, Shipley demonstrated decent side-to-side mobility in 2016, which is critical for a center who must protect both A-gaps. A strong run blocker, Shipley showcased a strong ability to square up at the point of attack, move his defender laterally, and run his feet on contact, which are all signs of a physical lineman.
All in all, Shipley was just solid in his first full season as an NFL starter. The Penn State product is never going to blow opponents away with his athleticism or an overwhelming amount of power, but the bottom line is he got the job done in a season in which the Cardinals needed some semblance of stability on the offensive line.
As for Boehm, the rookie out of Missouri never truly saw an opportunity, as he waited until the 17th week of the NFL season to make his starting debut, and he did so as a guard. Though Boehm has the tools to be an above average center, he wasn't ready to beat out Shipley in 2016, and Arians allowed him to wait his turn and take a full season adjusting to life in the NFL.
Shipley, Boehm in 2017
For all that Shipley gave the franchise in 2016, he may not have a place with the organization this season if Arians and Co. believe Boehm is ready to assume the starting role. It's likely that Arizona will at least try to pursue re-signing Shipley in free agency, especially given all of the injury challenges the Cardinals faced this season, but because he's entering free agency and because Boehm still has three years left on his rookie contract, it's not that far-fetched to believe a changing of the guard could occur.
As a prospect, Boehm possesses a greater upside than Shipley. He's wider, sturdier and more agile that Shipley, and one of the main reasons the Cardinals cited for drafting Boehm is that he's an incredible student of the game. Though it's difficult to say whether Boehm is ready to become the every down starter in the middle of the Cardinals' offensive line based on the one start he earned in 2016, from a logistics standpoint, it makes sense.
Still, if Shipley doesn't command a multi-year deal elsewhere, the Cardinals may opt to try and give him a one-to-two year deal because he's demonstrated he's more than capable of handling the rigors of starting at center in Arians' offense. Though bringing Shipley back may slow Boehm's development and delay his opportunities, at some point, the Cardinals are inclined to do what's best for the franchise in the short-term and that could very well mean starting Shipley at center again in 2017.