Left guard Mike Iupati (76) and left tackle Jared Veldheer (68) line up together during a play at a recent Cardinals practice.
After the 2014 season ended , Jared Veldheer wanted to start eating "cleaner" and get his body into top physical condition. Unfortunately, while he was likely more healthy, it didn't translate on the football field for the left tackle.
He saw his 6-foot-8 frame shrink to near 300 pounds, and coach Bruce Arians noticed, saying it allowed Veldheer to be bullrushed far too often
"When he first got here he was a mountain," Arians said. "Last year he was a pole."
One of the reasons the Cardinals made Veldheer their free-agent priority in the 2014 offseason was because of a situation just like
this – already with his big contract, there was no laurel-resting. Veldheer craved improvement, and came back this year still eating clean but back up to 330 pounds after making sure his lifestyle and his play could mesh.
That's the mentality General Manager Steve Keim looked at when first considering Veldheer. It's the mentality Keim considered last offseason, when the big free-agent contract was handed to Mike Iupati, who at left guard anchors that side of the line with Veldheer.
Risk will always be part of free agency. Keim has mitigated that somewhat, handing countless veterans lower-dollar "prove-it" deals that have frequently paid off the last three seasons.
Sometimes, though, it takes more money and more commitment. That's what it cost the Cardinals with Veldheer and Iupati to solidify an offensive line that, in Keim's eyes, had been left wanting for too long.
Two five-year contracts and more than $40 million guaranteed later – and more money than that, given both players' success thus far – the Cardinals have gotten exactly what they wanted out of the duo.
"There is a kind of person we try to focus on in free agency so we don't get burned," Keim said. "That's tough to do. If you don't draft them or grow them in your system, there is a big reason why there are a lot of overpaid busts in free agency.
"Both those guys, in my opinion, the tape was pretty easy to evaluate. It was more about what kind of fit they would be here. Every feedback we got back was that these guys were blue-collar workers, team guys, they were accountable. Every box was checked off.
Now, they just have to do their part and play well."
Both have. Veldheer's play did slip somewhat a season ago, which Arians figures was weight-related. But he still played well. Iupati, meanwhile, made the Pro Bowl and his arrival came – likely not by coincidence – with the team's best rushing performance since 1988.
Iupati shrugs at the idea his free-agent status changed any expectations. The same things were expected of him when he was drafted in the first round, anyway.
Improvement is coming, both say, in terms of chemistry between the two. Iupati missed most of training camp and the first three games of the regular season because of a meniscus injury, and that was time the two could have used to learn each other's game.
"That's all offensive linemen do, they communicate, they bond, because if not, (expletive) is gonna be bad," Iupati said.
It hasn't been bad yet, at least not with these two marquee signings. Veldheer, whose body fat is still under 20 percent, said his strength is where it needs to be. While the two remain the part of the line that carries no worry, both quickly talk about 2016 improvements.
"You definitely feel like you have to earn your worth," Veldheer said. "You have to be that guy they paid you to be. But pressure is good. It holds you accountable. It holds you to a high standard. Go out there with the mindset of trying to get better, that I will learn from any failures and keep improving. Never get complacent."
Images from the Red & White practice on Saturday at University of Phoenix Stadium