C Al Johnson (Andy Lyons/Getty)
The Cardinals ranked in the top 10 in sacks allowed despite attempting the second most passes in the NFL (36.9 per game). They also produced just the fifth 1,200-yard rusher in team history. Bottom line: Ken Whisenhunt’s imprint was made on the offensive line more than any other area of the team.
The Cardinals got serious about repairing their offensive line on draft day, spending the No. 5 overall pick on Penn State tackle Levi Brown. The rookie was an opening-day starter on the right side, protecting lefty Matt Leinart’s blindside.
Brown missed three games with a high ankle sprain and had the occasional rough outing (giving up three sacks to Seattle’s Patrick Kerney in Week 14), but he showed the power, agility and grit that the Cardinals hoped for when they drafted him.
Brown wasn’t the only new face on the offensive line. Left tackle Mike Gandy signed a three-year contract last offseason and went on to start every game for Arizona at left tackle. Gandy is not a dominant player but is tactically sound and extremely intelligent. He will make $8.5 million over the next two seasons, a relative steal as far as established left tackles go.
Also joining the team during the last free agent cycle was center Al Johnson. The Cardinals took a chance on Johnson, who didn’t start a single game in 2006 after losing his starting job to Andre Gurode. The gamble paid off, as Johnson started the final 13 games of the season after missing Weeks 2 and 3 with a knee injury.
Johnson has great size for a center (6-foot-5, 305 pounds), which was a key to cutting off pressure up the middle that had exposed Kurt Warner’s immobility in the past.
Reggie Wells, a sixth-round pick of the Cardinals in 2003, manned the left guard spot and joined Gandy as the only linemen to start all 16 games. He signed a new five-year contract last season but continued to play like he was in a contract year. He will earn just over $1 million next season and his base salary will never rise above $2.4 million, meaning he should be a Cardinal through 2010.
Filling out the final starting spot is 2006 second-round pick Deuce Lutui. The 6-foot-4, 328-pound mauler has excellent size and aggression but must learn to play under control and with better technique. Another off-season working with offensive line coach Russ Grimm could have Lutui playing at a Pro Bowl level next season.
For the first time in a long time, the Cardinals should boast impressive depth across the line. Nine-year veteran tackle Oliver Ross, who missed the 2007 season with a triceps injury, should be back next year. He started 17 games for the Cardinals in 2005 and 2006 and was running first string this season before going down in the preseason opener. He is set to earn $2.8 million in both 2008 and 2009 -- a pill the Cardinals will likely swallow for insurance at such an important position.
Elton Brown, a fourth-round pick of the Cardinals in 2005, will be the top backup at guard. He is a force at the point of attack but plays with poor leverage and tends to overextend. Brown has started 14 games in his career and is scheduled to be a restricted free agent. However, his ability to fill in at tackle as well as guard likely guarantees him a tender from the Cardinals.
One area where the Cardinals could use improved depth is at center. The Cardinals decided not to offer a tender to 2004 fourth-round pick and former starter Alex Stepanovich prior to last season, as Whisenhunt moved to bulk up his interior line. Another center chosen in the 2004 draft, sixth-round pick Nick Leckey, was released early in the season when he was outplayed by undrafted rookie Lyle Sendlein.
The Cardinals could take another stab at a backup center on the second day of the 2008 draft. They could also be in the market for a free agent tackle if they decide to release Ross for salary cap reasons (unlikely, as the team is approximately $30 million under the ever-increasing threshold).
Either way, the whirlwind of activity that shook up the line last off-season will not be back anytime soon, as Whisenhunt and Grimm successfully transformed what had been the Cardinals’ most underachieving unit.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network.