Cardinals lineman Cole Toner is playing both guard and center during the preseason.
Cole Toner didn't need his Harvard education to see what was coming.
The Cardinals' 2016 fifth-round pick played tackle in college, but has slowly moved inward on the offensive line as his NFL career has progressed. When Evan Boehm – projected to be the center of the future when he was drafted last season – was penciled in as the starting right guard this offseason, Toner knew his best shot at making the roster was to add backup center duties to his resume.
With A.Q. Shipley injured during OTAs, that meant full-time snaps with the starters.
"That was a very stressful process, but a learning process, getting thrown into the fire," Toner said. "I did it as well as I could. I studied hard. It takes a lot of reps at center. It takes looks. You've got to see things as they happen on the field. You can study all you want, which I do, but it takes being out there and seeing what's going on."
For every backup offensive lineman, versatility is the name of the game. Toner has now practiced at every spot on the offensive line during his tenure with the Cardinals. John Wetzel is another player who isn't projected to start, but has shown his ability to fill in when needed. He started games at both guard and tackle in 2016 when the Cardinals were besieged by injuries.
"I feel more prepared than I was last year," Wetzel said. "Just from that experience of going left, right, guard, tackle, wherever. I just want to play, so whatever it comes down to, I'll play anywhere."
The preseason is the ideal time to get work in. As the Cardinals prepare for their third exhibition game against the Bears on Saturday night, the backup linemen are scheduled to see plenty of snaps. The second-string offensive line has been impressive early this season, keeping Blaine Gabbert clean in the Hall of Fame Game and Drew Stanton upright against the Raiders.
"With the rules, they'll only be in pads once a week for 11 weeks (during the regular season)," coach Bruce Arians said. "That's the only good thing about the Hall of Fame Game, is having five extra days in pads with all these young guys – especially linemen."
In a perfect world, the Cardinals offensive linemen would avoid injuries throughout 2017, but that's a rarity. Last year, the starters missed 24 games combined. With only 46 active roster spots on game day, the more spots a reserve can fill in, the better chance he has of suiting up. If the Cardinals can get away with two active backup offensive linemen, that allows for extra players at other spots.
"We've got to have it," offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said. "If you aren't a starter, you have to be able to do a bunch of things."
Wetzel seems like a lock for a backup spot, and even though fourth-round pick Dorian Johnson isn't expected to play this season, it would be a surprise if he didn't make the team. The Cardinals have generally fluctuated between eight and ten offensive linemen on the roster during Arians' tenure, and players like Toner, tackle Ulrick John, guard/center Tony Bergstrom and fifth-round pick Will Holden are competing for the final spots.
The Cardinals lost a key backup this offseason when Earl Watford departed in free agency, but Wetzel and John each received valuable playing time experience last season.
"I feel a lot more comfortable," John said. "My first three starts were at right tackle and I primarily played left. This preseason I've gone in with a lot more confidence in myself. I went against three really good pass-rushers. It's a lot easier this year."
Arians has always said he won't cut a better player in order to balance out the roster composition. Olsen Pierre was the example last season, as the defensive line was heavier than normal because he forced his way onto the team. If the backup offensive line continues to shine, there will be room for everyone that deserves a spot.
"You just do everything you can, so maybe when they get down to the cuts they'll say, 'Well, maybe we could use an extra guy here,'" John said.
Images from the 18th practice of #CardsCamp