Cardinals tackle D.J. Humphries gets some work in a 2015 preseason game. Humphries was inactive for all 16 regular-season games and both playoff games.
D.J. Humphries has never been on the bench. Not until last season.
It was hard not to notice the Cardinals' top draft pick sitting out the whole season, and even harder for the offensive tackle to endure.
"I was telling (coach Bruce Arians) I have never not played," Humphries said. "Since I started I've always played every game. Last year, 21 weeks in a row, I had a pit burned in my chest, know what I mean? I told him, 'You really made me an animal. You didn't even know it.' I just had to deal with this every day and swallow my pride every week and bite the bullet. It made me an animal on the inside. I never want to be a part of that again."
The Cardinals insist Humphries – currently penciled in to be the starting right tackle this season – will be fine. They felt he
needed time to mature after coming out as a true junior last year. But it was more than that. Humphries simply wasn't ready as an offensive lineman for the demands of the NFL, and that isn't unique in this day and age of spread offenses on the college level.
"A lot of them, you are starting from scratch," said Cardinals offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Harold Goodwin. "For the things we do offensively, a lot of guys don't do it in college anymore."
"Putting D.J. out there last year would have been a crime," Goodwin added. "It would have been a crime."
There are multiple reasons for the issues of the modern offensive lineman. The speed in which many college offenses run, rushing to the line and quickly snapping the ball, changes the dynamics of how a lineman operates. Both Arians and Goodwin lament that some linemen don't even get into three-point stances, and Goodwin said many also come out of college not nearly as strong as they did just a decade ago.
That doesn't even include the normal learning curve of the NFL.
"You never say 'all' of them," Arians said. "'Most' of them struggle, you know?"
The notion didn't begin with Humphries. In 2013, three of the first five picks were offensive linemen and the early returns for Eric Fisher, Luke Joekel and Lane Johnson were mixed at best. The seventh pick of that draft was Cardinals guard
Jonathan Cooper, who never worked out and was traded to the Patriots last month.
There have been programs that prep offensive linemen a little more closely to what the Cardinals are trying to accomplish: Stanford, Iowa, Alabama before Lane Kiffin arrived as offensive coordinator. Most places, however, have moved away from the offense the Cardinals seek to run.
Goodwin said he spends a day every offseason in meetings when the rookie linemen show up simply teaching them the different defensive looks – the 3-4, 4-3, nickel packages and the like.
"When I was in college, I didn't have a complete grasp of what our offense was totally trying to do," Humphries said. "I just knew what the offensive line was trying to do. When you are in the NFL, you have to really understand what the whole offense is trying to do to really understand how the plays go."
Taking the starting-from-scratch thought further, there is also the opportunity to transform college defensive linemen into NFL offensive linemen, since there is so much to teach in the first place.
Tackles aren't the only ones impacted, Goodwin said. It goes across the line, including at center – the position the Cardinals are expected to address in this week's draft. The center is so crucial in what the Cardinals do offensively, Goodwin said either he or assistant line coach Larry Zierlein visited every single possible draftee at the position.
Some offensive linemen have to play right away, but Goodwin notes many do not play very well early on.
"Taking a guy in the first round of the draft as an offensive lineman anymore …," Goodwin said, scrunching up his face at the idea, "I'm not too jacked up."
Images of the offensive linemen projected to get selected in the NFL draft