Is this the year the Arizona Cardinals finally solidify the left tackle position? That’s the goal. After five straight seasons of horrific play from Levi Brown, Nate Potter and Bradley Sowell, it sounds like Arizona’s front office is all in on protecting quarterback Carson Palmer’s blindside.
But how will the Cardinals protect Palmer’s blindside? Will they select an offensive tackle in the draft, or will they throw a boatload of money at a top-tier free agent? According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, it sounds like general manager Steve Keim will try to address the position in free agency and make a run at Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert.
Unfortunately, chasing Albert would be a huge mistake for the Cardinals. Despite his high level of play in 2011, 2012 and 2013 as a pass-protector, the first-round pick out of Virginia has his fair share of downfalls. He turns 30 in November, he’s a subpar run-blocker and is known to play down to the competition.
Sure, Arizona could overlook his run-blocking abilities, and the fact he sometimes plays down to the competition, but it can’t overlook his age. We all know what happens to players when they find themselves on the wrong side of 30. It’s like they hit a wall and fall off the face of the earth.
For a case in point, look at guys like Bryant McKinnie, Eric Winston and Erik Pears. Prior to turning 30, all three players were viewed as top-notch tackles by the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Even though there are exceptions to the rule (Jason Peters, Michael Roos and Zach Strief), that doesn’t mean the Cardinals are in a position to gamble. If they plan on going all out in free agency, why not target a young player who has tremendous upside?
There are a handful of players in this year’s free-agent class who fit the bill. The most intriguing ones are Cincinnati Bengals left tackle Anthony Collins and Oakland Raiders left tackle Jared Veldheer.
Of the names mentioned above, Collins appears to be the most logical fit. He’s a Grade-A pass-protector, he doesn’t have a lot of mileage on his body and he’s a better run-blocker than Albert. Per PFF’s (subscription required) grading system, he was the 24th-best left tackle in the league, and he recorded 11 positively graded games in 14 appearances.
That’s astonishing considering he only made seven starts and played 592 snaps. When you break down his numbers on a per snap basis, it’s evident he rarely makes mistakes when he’s on the field. In 330 pass-block snaps, he allowed a quarterback pressure once every 27.5 snaps. Sowell, in comparison, surrendered a quarterback pressure once every 8.2 snaps.
As far as his run-blocking numbers go, Cincinnati’s leading rusher, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, averaged 4.6 yards per carry when he ran off Collins’ backside. Based on the fact Arizona averaged 1.8 yards per carry when it ran off Sowell’s backside, the 315-pound mauler would do wonders for the Cardinals’ rushing attack.
|Arizona Cardinals Cumulative Rushing Report Behind Bradley Sowell|
|Pro Football Focus|
Yet, Collins’ services will be in high demand, and they won’t be cheap. Per Coley Harvey of ESPN, “It probably shouldn't be a surprise if negotiations hover around or just above the $4.5-million-per-year mark.”
That’s a pretty reasonable rate when you take into account his production, age and injury history. The only other thing to consider is the length of the contract. At 28 years old, could the Cardinals afford to sign him to a long-term deal? They could, but they would have to make sure they structured the contract correctly.
Arizona would be wise to give Collins the majority of his guaranteed money in Years 1 and 2, that way the organization would have an easy out if he suffered a serious injury or massively underperformed. The good news is the sixth-year veteran has never experienced a serious injury during his tenure with the Bengals.
The same can’t be said about Veldheer.
Regardless of his healthy nature in 2010, 2011 and 2012, Veldheer missed 11 games in 2013 with a partially torn triceps muscle. He suffered the injury in the preseason, and it proved to be a staggering blow to the Raiders offensive line. PFF (subscription required) awarded Oakland with the 10th-worst pass-blocking grade and fifth-worst run-blocking grade this past season.
|Jared Veldheer's PFF Rating in 2013|
|Week||Snaps||Overall||Pass Block||Run Block||# of Pen||QB Sk||QB Ht||QB Hu|
|Pro Football Focus|
However, Veldheer isn’t completely off the hook for the Raiders’ poor performances upfront. When he returned from short-term injured reserve, he gave up two quarterback sacks and 15 quarterback hurries over the last five games of the season.
Furthermore, he received four negative grades from PFF in five outings and was penalized six times. It’s safe to say his market took a hit after a poor finish to the season. One shouldn’t expect the Cardinals to pursue Veldheer. He’s a marginal talent when healthy, and there’s no guarantee he will ever be the player he once was.
This, in turn, is why the Cardinals should exhaust all their resources and heavily pursue Collins. He’s the youngest, most talented free-agent left tackle available. He would be an instant upgrade over what they have, and he would solidify the position for years to come.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).