The starting offensive line waits for a play-call during training camp
The offensive line has been the Cardinals' resident Loch Ness Monster these past few months. Scary in theory, but not yet proven.
While the group has been together since the summer, Monday felt like the legitimate start to its journey, as pads finally came on at training camp, allowing the linemen to increase the physicality which ultimately decides their worth.
The man who constructed it all watched closely fro
m the sidelines, and while his belief in the unit may be higher than anyone's, he knows the result is out of his control.
"On paper it looks great, but these guys have to do it now," General Manager Steve Keim said.
Since Keim began making the personnel decisions in 2013, he's spent two of his three first-round draft picks on linemen – guard Jonathan Cooper with his first-ever selection and tackle D.J. Humphries this April. He's also inked a pair of Pro Bowl-level free agents, left tackle Jared Veldheer for five years and $35 million in 2014 and left guard Mike Iupati for five years and $40 million on the first day of free agency this March. Cooper has a hold on the starting right guard spot, while Humphries is trying to overtake incumbent Bobby Massie at right tackle – although, in a sign of depth, will more likely be a backup as a rookie. The center position has the least pedigree, but coach Bruce Arians seems confident in either A.Q. Shipley or Ted Larsen when one emerges from training camp with the starting job.
"They both look like little refrigerators," Arians said. "They look a lot alike and they play a lot alike. Smart and tough."
The unit's anchor – for years, potentially – comes on the left side, where Veldheer and Iupati hope to not only protect quarterback Carson Palmer's blind-side from pressure, but be a force in the running game.
"I think we can be one of the most dominating left sides in the NFL," Veldheer said. "I hope they call it our way when it's crunch time, because I know we can do it. I know we can roll a guy off the ball. We have a lot of weight, a lot of power between each other, and we're the kind of guys that like that."
Money and draft picks are finite resources in the NFL, and Keim has chosen to invest heavily in the offensive line. The players realize this, and believe they can repay th
at trust with a level of performance previously unseen out of the line since the Cards moved to Arizona in 1988.
"Our expectations are high," Veldheer said. "Nothing short of greatness is going to be OK with us."
"We can be the best in the league, hands down," Massie said.
The most delicate part of the process will be getting everything in order during camp. Individual physical ability is essential, but on the offensive line, communication is key. One missed assignment could be disastrous, and for a group which will likely have three new starters, it takes time to build up the chemistry.
"The only problem we have is from year one to year two to year three, it's a different five," offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said. "Some guys are the same, but if you go back to year one, there isn't anyone left. Every year is a transition."
Arians said it will take about three weeks to really evaluate what he has at the position, and it's made harder because the linemen won't cut-block their defensive teammates in training camp even though it's a necessary element in games.
There will be a point this season, though, when it becomes apparent how this line turned out. The ceiling is high if Cooper lives up to his draft status, if Massie takes a step forward, if Veldheer and Iupati prove to be an elite pairing.
Keim is watching like everyone else, but he paid the premium for this potential, and he's ready for the return on his investment.
"I think they're a hungry group right now and I think they have a lot to prove," Keim said. "I'd be very, very surprised if those guys didn't play extremely well this year."