Back on March 4, Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury said he did not know the status of right tackle Marcus Gilbert for the 2021 season. On Monday, Gilbert answered that question by announcing his retirement from the NFL on Twitter.
"Although my tenure with the Arizona Cardinals was short, I cherished my time in the Grand Canyon State," Gilbert posted. "I wish Coach Kingsbury and the Arizona Cardinals the best of luck this season."
The Cardinals traded for Gilbert to take over at right tackle in March of 2019. Two seasons passed, and Gilbert never made his Cardinals debut. He tore his ACL prior to the 2019 season, then opted out of the 2020 campaign due to safety reasons regarding his health and the risk of contracting COVID-19.
Arizona had to pivot, first by acquiring tackle Justin Murray off waivers in 2019, then signing Kelvin Beachum as a free agent for the 2020 season although his addition was mostly for depth prior to Gilbert's opt-out decision. The Cardinals re-signed Beachum on a two-year deal this offseason, potentially preparing for a Gilbert exit. Friday, he will announce the team's selection in the second round of the draft.
The Beachum move negates the impact of this loss significantly, but Cardinals general manager Steve Keim addressed the need for depth in the trenches when he spoke to the media last week.
"The fact that we have 17 (games), you want to make sure you have depth at every position, especially the positions up front; offensive and defensive line," Keim said. "I think generally, when you look at history, it tells you that there's attrition at those positions, and you have to do your best to make sure that those second-team guys are available and can step in and start in a pinch."
The Cardinals starting offensive line does not spark many questions for the 2021 season. D.J. Humphries had a career year last year at left tackle. Beachum will likely line up on the right side and Justin Pugh took a pay cut to return to his left-guard spot. The Cardinals traded their 2021 third-round pick for Raiders center Rodney Hudson.
The only spot that could have a competition is right guard. Murray took over the spot last season and the Cardinals added former Bills guard Brian Winters for depth and to compete for a starting spot this offseason.
The Cardinals will face some of the league's better pass rushers in the division this year. Nick Bosa is back for the 49ers after missing most of last season with a torn ACL. The Seahawks brought back Carlos Dunlap, who had two sacks against Arizona in Week 11 last season. The Rams have six-time All-Pro Aaron Donald and re-signed Leonard Floyd, who had 10.5 sacks last year.
SI NFL analyst and former NFL head coach Jim Mora spoke with AllCardinals about the Cardinals best shot to defend some of these elite defenders.
"In order to win your division, you have to set your team up to beat the teams in your division," Mora said. "And that means if you're struggling in the interior, and you're getting pushed around, you better go address it, you need to address it with a veteran. If you're going to count on a rookie to come in and play at a high level right away, that's a risk."
The Cardinals have set up the line with experience, opening up the option for the Cardinals to build more depth and develop players for the future in this week's draft. Pugh, Beachum and Hudson are all over 30 years old, plus Pugh and Murray will be unrestricted free agents after the 2022 season.
The Cardinals have some young depth on the roster with 2020 third-round pick Josh Jones, who can play inside and out; 25-year-old tackle Joshua Miles, who played sparingly in 2019; Lamont Gaillard, 25, who started two games at center in 2020 and can play guard and several players on reserve/future contracts.
That doesn't mean the Cardinals won't continue to build.
"I like some of the guys who are inside players, the guards and the centers," Keim said about the 2021 draft class.
Arizona doesn't have its third- and fourth-round picks, so it would have to decide whether to take an offensive lineman in the first two rounds or wait until late in the draft. With the added year of eligibility at the college level due to the pandemic, the talent pool late may be less fruitful than in typical drafts.
Keim mentioned that the opportunity to trade back in the first round from pick No. 16 would give his team more "lottery tickets" to work with.