Last offseason, the Cardinals made what appeared to be one of the most savvy free agent pickups of the year when general manager Steve Keim inked veteran right guard Evan Mathis to a one-year, $6 million contract.
Though Mathis was considering retirement prior to signing with Arizona, the Cardinals knew the Pro Bowler still had gas left in his tank, and felt he would be the perfect compliment to an inexperienced right side of the offensive line.
After the 2015 campaign, the Cardinals knew there would be a changing of the guard at center, right guard and right tackle, and with youthful options at the center and tackle spots, Arizona needed a veteran to anchor the line and prepare its younger players for every situation they might encounter.
While Mathis was certainly an injury-risk given his recent history, the pros of the signing outweighed the cons, as he would pair with second-year right tackle D.J. Humphries and help expedite the former first round draft pick's progress.
Mathis certainly provided aid to Humphries throughout training camp and the early part of the regular season, but just five games into the year, disaster struck. Mathis suffered a season-ending injury that left the Cardinals short-handed along the offensive line for the majority of the season, and set in motion a chain of unfortunate events that depleted Arizona's depth.
Mathis was the first straw to fall for Arizona, but he wasn't the only player the Cardinals bet on that ultimately finished the season on injured reserve.
Mathis, Toner in 2016
Aside from being responsible for anchoring the right side of the offensive line, Mathis was also brought in to help tutor a pair of rookie offensive linemen, Evan Boehm and Cole Toner. The Cardinals' fourth and fifth round draft picks were made to solidify the team's depth, and Arizona was hoping having Mathis around would add another veteran its younger players could rely on for help.
Even after Mathis' injury, the former Super Bowl champion stuck around the team and helped Arizona as a positive presence in the locker room, which was important in a season in which the team failed to live up to expectations.
When Mathis was healthy, he was a solid, if not above average offensive lineman, giving the Cardinals balance on the offensive line because head coach Bruce Arians could send either Mathis, or his left guard Mike Iupati, through running lanes as pulling linemen. What Mathis lacked in foot speed as a pass blocker, he made up for with toughness in the trenches, making the rushing attack more formidable.
When Mathis went down, Toner wasn't quite ready to step in, as the Cardinals used their fifth round selection on him as more of a developmental project type of a pick. Toner played offensive tackle at Harvard, so the jump to the NFL wasn't as natural as it is for other rookie offensive lineman. Essentially, Toner used 2016 as a redshirt year, watching as the team cycled through four other right guards when Mathis went down.
Whether Toner can develop into the player Arizona hopes he becomes remains to be seen, but the expectation level was low in 2016, given the significant jump he had to make from Harvard to the NFL.
Mathis, Toner in 2017
The decision to bring in Mathis for Arizona was made to shore up the offensive line for just one season, as Mathis agreed to hold off his retirement and take one more opportunity to chase a Super Bowl title. After suffering a season-ending injury, though, Mathis' mind was clearly made up, as he decided to hang up his cleats and call it quits.
Perhaps the Cardinals were hoping that by drafting Toner, he would be ready to step in by 2017 and take over the spot vacated by Mathis, but that would have been an unlikely goal. At this point, the Cardinals are hoping Toner can become a more serviceable depth option in 2017, given the fact he's still in the second year of his rookie contract and comes to the franchise at such a cheap cost.
Whether Toner gets a chance to crack the lineup in 2017 remains to be seen, but it's much more likely that Arizona hits the free agent market or the early rounds of the NFL Draft to find the team's next starter at right guard. With much of the rest of the offensive line already in place, right guard is the one position Arizona does have to worry about this offseason.