The Arizona Cardinals selected former Ohio State offensive tackle Paris Johnson Jr. with the No. 6 overall selection in the 2023 NFL Draft. The Cardinals were linked to Johnson throughout the pre-draft process. General manager Monti Ossenfort still got his guy after moving down (and back up) and acquiring more selections, but the Cardinals must now sort through what position Johnson will play throughout his rookie season. The likeliest solution is at left guard.
Johnson was a standout blindside protector for C.J. Stroud the Buckeyes. The capital invested into Johnson by Arizona insinuates he’s a left tackle. The problem? The Cardinals already have a franchise left tackle in D.J. Humphries. Humphries recently signed a three-year extension with the Cardinals worth $66.8 million. The new deal keeps Humphries signed in Arizona through the 2025 campaign. Barring health, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where Humphries isn’t Arizona’s starting left tackle in 2023.
A season-ending injury limited Humphries to 571 snaps in 2022, but Humphries was his usual consistent self when in Arizona’s lineup. Humphries earned a strong pass-blocking grade of 80.5 from Pro Football Focus. Humphries was credited with allowing zero sacks on 382 pass-blocking snaps.
I believe Johnson is viewed internally as Humphries’ long-term successor, but that won’t come to fruition immediately.
The Cardinals have an immediate need at left guard. It was a revolving door last season. Max Garcia played the majority of the snaps at the position. Garcia delivered lackluster results. He’s currently a free agent that isn’t expected back with the Cardinals in 2023.
The Cardinals took a flier on Cody Ford, who they acquired from the Buffalo Bills during the preseason. Ford played more than 300 snaps at left guard, but he was a downright liability, having earned an overall blocking grade of 41.2 from PFF. Ford has since signed with the Cincinnati Bengals.
The 32-year-old Justin Pugh also received opportunities, but Pugh suffered a season-ending torn ACL in October. Pugh is an unrestricted free agent. Fellow free agent Rashaad Coward also won’t return to Arizona. Ossenfort added Elijah Wilkinson in free agency. Wilkerson signed a one-year deal worth $1.2 million in free agency after being a surprisingly effective left guard for the Atlanta Falcons last season. Wilkerson adds quality depth, but I have a tough time envisioning how he prevents Johnson from earning the starting job.
Johnson was an effective right guard for the Buckeyes in 2021. Johnson played nearly 800 snaps at right guard, proving that he possesses the necessary movement skills to thrive inside. It should be temporary, but Johnson could immediately solve the woes the Cardinals experienced at guard last season.
Alternatively, could Johnson get into the mix at right tackle? We wouldn’t totally rule it out. The aging Kelvin Beachum may be viewed as being more replaceable, especially when looking to 2024 and beyond, but Johnson didn’t play right tackle at Ohio State. Asking Johnson to switch sides would be a taller task than asking him to play guard until the left tackle spot becomes available. It’s a smoother transition.
Drafting Johnson provided the Cardinals with both an issue and a solution. First-year head coach Jonathan Gannon must sort through how to appropriately utilize Johnson while Humphries remains healthy and on the roster. Playing Johnson at left guard in 2023 is the most straightforward answer.
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