Entering the 2016 season, the Arizona Cardinals were preparing to replace long-time starting center Lyle Sendlein, who anchored the team's offensive line for nearly a decade.
Though the Cardinals used a fourth round draft pick on a prototypical center, Evan Boehm, out of Missouri, the four-year Tigers' starter didn't earn much of an opportunity to climb the depth chart during training camp.
While Sendlein wasn't coming back, Cardinals' head coach Bruce Arians was almost dead-set on awarding his vacated starting position to journeyman offensive lineman A.Q. Shipley, who had yet to start a full season in the NFL.
Despite Shipley's inexperience, he turned out to be Arizona's most consistent offensive linemen in 2016, starting all 16 games and earning himself a higher pay day in the upcoming free agent window.
This offseason, Cardinals' management has been vocal about the priority of re-signing Shipley, which would seemingly make Boehm, a capable young lineman, the odd man out yet again.
However, in an interview with azcardinals.com at the NFL Combine this week, Arians said the Cardinals are intrigued by Boehm's potential as a guard, and hinted at the possibility of Boehm assuming a starting spot even if Shipley returns next season.
"Really liked the way Evan played other than a few mental errors at guard," Arians said. "He really showed he could play guard up in Seattle, still some of the nuances to the position he has to learn. But he has shown position flexibility in playing two positions so I think he'll have a spot on the line."
With 2016 starting right guard Evan Mathis retiring and his replacement, Earl Watford, set to become a free agent, the Cardinals have an opening on the offensive line that Boehm may have an opportunity to slide into.
Though Boehm played center for four years in college and worked at center exclusively until late-season injury issues pushed him over to guard, Arizona could capitalize on shifting him to guard permanently because he comes with such a cheap annual price tag.
Given the fact Arizona will likely face a tight squeeze salary-cap wise in free agency, if the team does bring back Shipley, it may not have enough money to sign a quality, veteran offensive lineman to start at guard on the open market.
In that scenario, the Cardinals could push Boehm as the most likely candidate to replace Mathis, which could become one of the more fascinating storylines when training camp eventually arrives.
At the NFL Combine, Arians spoke about the Cardinals' approach to free agency and said if the organization could bring back all of its free agents this season, Arizona would not hesitate to do so. However, with salary cap restrictions, Arians knows that's not possible, but said general manager Steve Keim diligently prepares for these scenarios by planning years in ahead.
While the Cardinals may not have drafted Boehm with his potential to replace Mathis in mind, Arizona did want him to become a key part of the team's offensive line and that's exactly what would happen if he slid in and performed well at guard.
"If we could just sign our own guys, I wouldn't worry about getting anybody else," Arians said. "I know that's not going to happen so we've got to look at who is the next best fit for us and what's available in the draft. Steve (Keim) does a great job of making sure that we have potential players already on our roster. He does a great job of two years ahead of time, knowing what we might lose in two years, to make sure we're filling in the gaps."
Last season, four Cardinals' linemen wound up finishing the season on injured reserve while tackle D.J. Humphries missed the final two contests of the regular season with a concussion. While the injuries obviously hindered the Cardinals' offensive capabilities, Arians did say it allowed the team to take an extended look at some of the younger linemen on the roster.
Though not every player panned out, Arians was satisfied with many of the replacement's performances, including Boehm's.
"We played 10 offensive linemen last year, that's not what you're looking for," Arians said. "But we found three or four young guys that have a future and we went up to Seattle with three starters out, and Carson only got sacked once. He got pressured a few times."