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Cardinals, Jared Veldheer Prove Perfect Fit

Free-agent signing gives team exactly who it needed for left tackle spot

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There will be a limit to the fun Jared Veldheer can have these next two days. He works on New Year's Eve, works again on New Year's Day and takes a cross-country flight to Charlotte Thursday night.

As the Cardinals' star left tackle mulled that prospect, it didn't leave him in a sour mood. Instead, he paused for a moment while lacing up his cleats, looked up and smiled like a Cheshire cat.

"It's exciting," said Veldheer, who will participate in his first career playoff game when the Cardinals take on the Panthers in the NFC wild card round on Saturday afternoon. "I woke up excited the last few days because usually the season was done for me."

Veldheer had more free time than ever last year, and he hated it. A torn triceps robbed him of the first 11 games of the season with the Raiders. After he returned, the team went 0-5 and missed the playoffs, sending the players scurrying to their offseason homes before the calendar flipped to 2014.

It was a familiar feeling in Oakland. While Veldheer grew from an unknown third-round pick to one of the NFL's top left tackles in four seasons with the Raiders, the team finished a combined 24-40 in his tenure, never finishing above .500. He signed a 5-year, $35-million free agent contract with the Cardinals in March, and a big draw was their trajectory. He wanted to compete for a Super Bowl and be part of a winning culture.

"I think the biggest difference was just the belief in the locker room," Veldheer said.

While there were plenty of bumps along the way, the Cardinals overcame a rash of key injuries to secure a spot in the postseason. The quarterback and running back positions behind him have been a revolving door, but Veldheer has locked down the left tackle spot exactly as the Cardinals' braintrust envisioned.

He started every game and was rated as the ninth-best offensive tackle in the regular season, according to Pro Football Focus. The website reviews film of every play, and credited opposing rushers with only one sack and four quarterback hits all year. Even on the sack, offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said, it wasn't Veldheer's fault because quarterback Logan Thomas dropped back too far instead of stepping up in the pocket.

"That's a huge difference for the Cardinals to have a Pro Bowl left tackle," coach Bruce Arians said. "I know he didn't get voted (in), but he played that way the entire year."

The injury bug which has feasted on other Cardinals took aim at Veldheer in late November, but he swatted it away. He suffered an ankle sprain late against the Falcons, and even though the team had precious little chance at rallying for the win, he stayed in the game.

By the time the team plane touched back down in Phoenix, Veldheer's mind was made up.

"My goal right away was like, 'I'm getting back for next week,' " he said. "You've just got to tell yourself that right away. Psychologically, sometimes your brain will let you heal if you expect a lot out of your body, if you push it a little bit."

After playing in all 16 games in the first three seasons of his career, last year's triceps injury gave him a new perspective.

"That's the first time I was really sidelined like that," Veldheer said. "I never want to be in a situation like that. My goal is to be on the field every game, unless I'm physically incapable of either walking or using my arms."

One of the chief concerns with players who ink big-money deals in the offseason is how it will affect their work ethic. The minute Veldheer signed on the dotted line, for instance, his pockets were lined with a $6.25 million signing bonus.

From the day Veldheer arrived, Goodwin said it was evident complacency would not be an issue.

"As a coach you knew you were in for a lot of work, because he's always on you asking questions," Goodwin said. " 'Why do we do this? How do we do this?' He's a guy who is always trying to evolve his game and get better each week."

Veldheer, one of the most physically impressive players on the team, was nearly taken aback at the idea of coasting.

"You should get better every time," he said. "You should never go through a week of practice and not benefit."

It took more than a decade for the Cardinals to land their latest premier blind-side protector, and while the NFL is notorious for its turnover, this relationship seems built for the long haul. Veldheer is only 27, and his contract is a relative bargain in the expensive world of NFL left tackles.

When the offseason arrives, Veldheer may ponder his role as a building block for future success. As he gleefully realizes, that time is not yet upon him.

"I haven't given much thought to that," Veldheer said. "I've been so focused on the regular season and then especially with the playoffs here now, the focus is even ramped up more now. That kind of stuff I'll save for reflection down the road. Right now, what I'm worried about is going to Carolina and getting a win."

Images of WR Michael Floyd scoring on a 41-yard pass late in the second quarter against the 49ers



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