by Ben Muth
By the time you read this article, real football will have already been played. We’ve made it through another offseason and can once again enjoy the finer things in football, like a well-executed backside cutoff block.
If you’re new to the column, the format is pretty simple. I pick three teams at the beginning of the season and focus on a different one each week. We mainly look at the offensive line, but sometimes that can bleed into other facets of the game. This first column is just a light preview to introduce what teams we’re covering and what I’m expecting going into the season. So without further ado, here’s who we’ll be looking at this year.
The reason we’re looking at the Redbirds is that they might be trying something pretty different in the NFL, which is a rare thing. After having a historically awful offense in 2018 (third-worst offensive DVOA as far as it has been tracked) and “earning” the first pick in the draft, the Cardinals did a lot of things that aren’t part of the conventional NFL wisdom. They fired the head coach after one year. They hired a college coach with a scheme that was extreme even in college. They brought in two new coordinators. They gave up on their first-round quarterback from 2018 and traded him for two picks. Then they drafted a small and slight quarterback who only started for one season in college with the first overall pick. It was an interesting offseason if nothing else.
Now, all of their moves made sense in a vacuum. They fired the head coach after an embarrassing year that would have gotten just about anyone fired. The college coach with the mediocre record was a highly sought-after offensive mind, and giving him the head job was the only realistic way to get him to Arizona. Of course, a new coach who inherited the worst team in the league is going to want to replace both coordinators. Josh Rosen had the worst passing DYAR in the history of the stat. And Kyler Murray may have only played one year, but it was a great year, and he has everything you want out of a modern quarterback except for ideal size.
Just because the moves made sense, however, doesn’t mean that they’ll work. But whether they work or not, they do make the Cardinals interesting, particularly on offense where Kliff Kingsbury is bringing a true Air Raid and a relentless commitment to pace to the NFL. Kingsbury’s teams at Texas Tech weren’t huge winners, but only Kingsbury’s former coach Mike Leach at Washington State threw the ball more than the Red Raiders, and only Baylor and Clemson ran more total plays than Kingsbury got off in his time in Lubbock. It’s not just that Kingsbury is a college coach, it’s that he’s maybe the most extreme outlier of college spread coaches.
The scheme will be interesting. I watched a good bit of Texas Tech the last few years because their games are typically entertaining, but I don’t have a great feel for what run schemes Kingsbury will bring with him to the NFL. In college, Kingsbury’s offensive lines would take much wider splits than you typically see at the NFL level. I’m not sure if that will come with him (it’s definitely something they’ve experimented with this offseason). Even the snap count (Kingsbury seems to prefer a clapping count as opposed to a verbal one) has been a source of confusion as they’ve been flagged often for quarterback false starts in the preseason.
We’re just about done with Arizona’s preview and we haven’t mentioned a single offensive lineman, but frankly that’s because it’s not a super interesting unit outside of the scheme. D.J. Humphries is a recent first-round pick who has been banged up and ineffective in his first three years in the league. Left guard Justin Pugh was a big free-agent acquisition and he’s a solid player when he’s healthy, but has played in just 15 games over the last two years. At center, A.Q. Shipley is a 33-year-old who has bounced around the NFL a bit and is coming off a season-ending injury last year. The other guard, J.R. Sweezy, is another offseason acquisition who happens to be on his third team in three years. Rounding out the unit is yet another new face who has dealt with recent injury issues in right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who comes over from Pittsburgh.
On one hand it’s an experienced unit. On the other hand the only two guys who have ever played together before this year are the left tackle and center, and they haven’t played together since 2017. They’re all learning a new system. And most of them are coming off injury-plagued (or ruined) seasons. At the very least, the Cardinals offensive line in Kingsbury’s scheme should give me plenty to write about.
Just like the Cardinals, the thing I’m most interested about in Baltimore is the scheme. To turn an old coaches’ saying on its head, it’s not about the Jimmys and the Joes, it’s about the Xs and the Os. Once Baltimore moved from Joe Flacco to Lamar Jackson last season, their year turned around and their offense got a lot more interesting. They also named Greg Roman as the offensive coordinator this season. Roman is typically one of the most creative minds in the sport when it comes to running schemes.
Watching Roman and Jackson team up was enough to pique my interest, but a quote from John Harbaugh was what sealed the deal for Baltimore’s inclusion in this column. A reporter asked him if Lamar Jackson would break his own record for quarterback rushing attempts in a season (147), and Harbaugh said “take the over” with a mix of confidence and nonchalance that makes me think the second-year quarterback will shatter it. Running schemes get a lot more interesting when everyone in the backfield is a threat to run it.
On top of the schemes, though, I am thrilled to get to watch guard Marshal Yanda closely again. I focused on the Ravens a few years ago and Yanda was as good of a player as I’ve ever covered in this column, I’m hoping that age/time hasn’t diminished that too much. Yanda is the only starter left over from those old Baltimore teams I covered, but all five of Baltimore’s projected starters were on the team last year. At tackle, the Ravens have a pair of younger guys who were relatively big names in the college game in Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown. Matt Skura is going into his third year as Baltimore’s center, while Bradley Bozeman is entering his second year with Baltimore but this will be his first year starting.
New York Jets
The New York Jets were the only team I picked that didn’t have anything to do with scheme. Also, it didn’t have much to do with personnel. I picked the Jets because I haven’t written about them before. It seemed like as good as reason as any.
But there are other intriguing things about the Jets offense to look forward to — mainly that they just brought in a big free-agent running back in Le’Veon Bell and probably plan on featuring him a good bit. On top of that, it should be interesting to see how Sam Darnold looks in Year 2.
The personnel upfront also should provide some decent storylines. They brought Ryan Kalil out of retirement to come in and fill a gigantic hole at center. Kalil had a very good career in Carolina, but talking guys out of retirement after the Fourth of July seems like a risky way to build a unit. They also brought in free agent Kelechi Osemele, who is one of my favorite players to watch (maybe the meanest offensive lineman in the NFL), but he had a supposedly down year in Oakland in 2018. The other interior lineman is Brian Winters, who has started the last several years for the Jets and I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone talk about him.
At left tackle the Jets will be going with Kelvin Beachum, a veteran player that is on his third team. The good news is he has started everywhere he has been; the bad news is two teams felt perfectly fine moving on from him. Opposite Beachum is the Jets’ most inexperienced likely starter, Brandon Shell, who is entering his fourth year and has 29 starts under his belt. So it’s a veteran crew with two big names that most would say are past their peak and a few other players that have played a good amount of football but haven’t set the world on fire. I don’t think anyone is predicting a top-flight unit, but it could be solid.