When the Rams face the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, one of the least likely defensive "starters" on their roster is Division II product, outside linebacker Dennis Gardeck. I'm not sure whether to technically call him a starter, because he'd be the starter in a 3-4 base look, but it seems like he comes off the field in nickel, so whether he's on the field on the first play of the game probably depends on who the Rams trot out to for the first snap. Gardeck played about 50% of their defensive snaps against the Raiders.
Gardeck played at West Virginia State, then transferred to Sioux Falls for his final season in college. To my knowledge, neither of those D2 schools have much history in producing notable NFL players. While in college, Gardeck worked at a McDonald's in WV, then at a Panda Express when he was at Sioux Falls. He credits eating at McD's for helping him put on weight to play football.
A good pro day drew the attention of NFL scouts and he was signed as an UDFA in 2018. He was a special teams star early in his career, named as a Pro Bowl alternate as a STer his 2nd season. Gardeck has been named a team captain 3 times for the Cards.
Chandler Jones left Arizona and joined the Raiders in free agency this year, and Gardeck seized on the opportunity to climb up the depth chart. So far this season, Gardeck has a 90.6 PFF grade, ranking as 5th best out of 103 edge defenders in the NFL. He doesn't have the name recognition of players like JJ Watt, Isaiah Simons, Zaven Collins, Byron Murphy or Budda Baker, but keep an eye out for jersey number 45 when he's on the field. Don't be surprised if this "nobody" makes some plays against the Rams. He might be a former McD's burger flipper (literally), but he also could be a small school underdog on the cusp of emerging as a quality NFL defender.
Passing the Dortch
When Greg Dortch was an offseason member of the Rams, I thought he had a shot at making the final roster as a return specialist, but it didn't happen. With Hopkins suspended for PEDs, Rondale Moore out with a hamstring injury and Andy Isabella out with a back strain, Dortch ended up getting substantial playing time at WR for the Cards in the first 2 games and has produced. He's on pace for a 1,000 yard receiving season. Yes, some of those yards came in garbage time in the 1st game and he presumably will go back to being just a STer if the Cards can get their regular WRs back, but Dortch has done will with his opportunities. He's bounced around (Arizona is his 5th team), so maybe he's earned a roster spot and can stick around with the Cards.
Too Too Not Well
Generally speaking, I'd say that the start of the 2nd NFL season for a player is too early to declare a player a draft bust, but in some cases we can close the book on the outcome of a draft pick, at least from the team's POV. Rams fans are pretty down on 2021 late second round selection, Tutu Atwell, but it should be a surprise to find that if we look around the NFL, there are many similar picks that have also disappointed.
One example is what has happened with the Vikings and their large 2021 draft class. The Vikings exercised 4 picks in the 3rd round that year and 3 of those players aren't on their roster anymore, not even on the PS. They waived quarterback Kellen Mond, who they took at the top of the 3rd round, linebacker Chazz Surratt and guard Wyatt Davis. I liked Surratt, I thought he was going to be a good player. He played poorly as a rookie, then when the Vikings changed their defense, he didn't fit the scheme. He's not a PS player for the Jets. Wyatt Davis is already on his 3rd NFL team. The Vikings also waived and lost Janarius Robinson, a 4th round pick, receiver Ihmir Smith Marsette (5th rd) and tight end Zach Davidson (5th round). I thought Davidson was a promising small school player. Pretty amazing that after just 1 season, out of all of those middle round picks, the Vikings literally have zero to show for them, not even retaining them as PS players. That's a bad draft.
Since these posts are about the OL, it is further worth noting that Wyatt Davis is far from the only OL pick from that area of the 2021 to have underachieved to this point. Kendrick Green was a 3rd round pick by the Steelers. Even though the Steelers have one of the worst OLs in the NFL, Green has been a healthy inactive on gameday. Fellow 3rd round guard, Ben Cleveland, is a backup player for the Ravens.
Dillon Radunz was a tackle drafted in the 2nd round, four slots ahead of Tutu Atwell. Radunz had great workout measurements. He had a terrible run block win rate as a rookie per ESPN and in limited action was given a poor 49.7 PFF grade. He struggled in training camp and the preseason. Instead of developing him as an OT, the Titans seem to have given up on that idea and have made him a backup guard.
Derrick Henry is only averaging 3.1 yards per carry this year. Saffold is no longer playing for the Titans. I'm all for investing draft picks or FA money in building the OL, but the Titans are an example of a team that took a G/T before Atwell and so far have gotten very little return on that investment.
Sam Cosmi was drafted 2 spots ahead of Radunz. He's played well and received good PFF grades thus far in the NFL. On the other hand, one mistake by Cosmi was very costly for Washington in their last game. On a pass play, Cosmi oversets and is beaten badly to the inside. He desperately tries to recover, but as he dives he crashes into the legs of the center, Chase Roullier, causing what is believed to be a season ending knee injury to possibly Washington's best offensive lineman. Prior to the season, ESPN projected Washington have the 7th best OL in the NFL, and that single play could have a pivotal impact on both the performance of their OL as well as any playoff aspirations the team has in what was projected to be a weak NFC East.
Before the season, ESPN projected Arizona to have the 6th best OL in the NFL. They were expected to be especially good at pass blocking (3rd best), and also solid in run blocking (13th). Meanwhile, ESPN expected the Rams to not be as good in either department, ranking 9th in pass blocking and 20th in run blocking. Overall, ESPN had the Rams as the 12th best OL.
Granting that 2 games is a tiny sample size, Arizona hasn't disappointed, as they have performed up to ESPN's high expectations. They rank 5th in pass block win rate as a team, while the Rams are only 16th. Arizona ranks 2nd in run block win rate, while the Rams are only 19th. So, while ESPN's metrics have the Rams as a middle of the pack OL, Arizona has measured as an elite unit.
DJ Humphries ranks 1st among OTs in pass block win rate. He's tied for 1st in run block win rate and the player tied with him is Arizona's right tackle, Kelvin Beachum. Last year, Seth Walder for ESPN showed a chart plotting PBWR vs double team rate to try to show which LTs were really elite and which ones relied on getting help. On that chart, Andrew Whitworth was in a class by himself, all alone as arguably the best pass blocking LT. In contrast, DJ Humphries came out as only an average LT. Walder questioned whether Humphries was worth the salary he got in his new 2022 contract.
At guard, Justin Pugh (left guard) is at 100% in both pass block win rate and run block win rate, but he's only played in 1 game this year. The other guard tied with Pugh for 1st in the NFl in PBWR is James Daniels, the Steelers player I did a fanpost about for free agency. Will Hernandez (right guard) for the Cards (both Pugh and Hernandez were drafted by the NYG) also has a great PBWR at 98%.
Veteran center, Rodney Hudson, ranks 7th among centers in PBWR at 98% and is the 2nd best center in RBWR. So, all 5 of the starting OL for the Cards are among the top ranked players based on ESPN's measurements.
James Conner played well against the Rams last year, but he picked up an injury in their last game. It didn't sound serious, but I'm not aware of his status this week and whether he'll be able to go. Zach Ertz was also slowed by injury to begin the season and could be dangerous if he rounds into form. He hauled in 8 catches against the Raiders.
On the other side of the ball, Arizona ranks 1st in the NFL in pass rush win rate at 58%. The Rams are 11th at 44%. This are dramatically flipped when it comes to run defense, with the Rams in 2nd place, while Arizona is dead last, 32nd in the NFL. If the Rams can't run the ball against Arizona, maybe it is time to panic about our OL. If the Rams run all over Arizona, don't assume McVay and company magically fixed the blocking woes.
Justin Hollins is the best edge defender at run stop win rate. In 2nd place is former Ram, Samson Ebukam.
Aaron Donald is in a category all by himself, by far the top DT at pass rush win rate. The 2nd best DT is Arizona's Zach Allen, 11 percentage points behind AD. I really liked Allen as a draft prospect coming out of Boston College, but early on in his career, he was slow to make an impact, posting PFF grades in the 50's. So far this year, he has a 75.2 PFF grade. Maybe this is his breakout season. Allen was drafted at the top of the 3rd round in 2019, so this is his 4th year in the pros.
Is PFF complete garbage?
The main interior OL backup for Arizona is Sean Harlow. Filling in at LG in the 1st game of the year, PFF gave him a lousy 27.3 grade. His performance was supposedly so bad, he grades 70th out of 70 guards in the NFL this year, making him supposed the very worst qualifying guard.
Revenge of The Birds was so up in arms about this that they went back and charted all of Harlow's snaps from the game and contend that he had "wins" on 42 of his 46 pass blocking snaps and wins on 17 of 18 of his run blocks. PFF gave him a zero grade for pass blocking in the game and a 42.9 run block grade. While RTB might obviously have a bias favoring Harlow, I'd argue that their method isn't any less subjective, less scientific or less precise than what PFF does. Moreover, the gigantic discrepancy in the results (RTB says they would have given Harlow a "B" grade for the game, while PFF's number easily could be characterized as an "F". Is there such a thing as an "F-"?) raises serious questions as to the reliability of the numbers PFF spits out on a weekly basis.
If the Cards need a 2nd IOL sub, they'll likely use veteran Max Garcia, a recent addition they signed when Cody Ford (probably could be fairly characterized as a 2nd round draft bust for the Bills) got injured and went on IR. Their swing backup at OT is former 3rd round pick Josh Jones. Nothing against Alaric Jackson, who turned in solid work when he was asked to step up against Atlanta, I think it is notable that when the Rams have to go to the bench at OL they are using UDFAs (even Coleman Shelton, a starter, is a former UDFA), while other teams like the Cards are using former 2nd, 3rd and 4th round picks as their backup OL.
It is true that Arizona didn't draft almost all of the players in question, they signed them as vets from other teams. Plus, the reason they focused on the OL is because Arizona has had some terrible OLs in recent years, so they attacked one of their glaring weaknesses. So, I'm not arguing that the Rams necessarily have to burn their own 2nd and 3rd round picks on OL (see above discussion about Radunz and Wyatt Davis for examples of how it might not work out), but if Arizona continues to have a strong OL in 2022, it won't be a fluke, it will be the end product of the organization focusing their efforts on building up the OL.
In terms of PFF grades, Humphries (78.6) is the 7th best OT in the league, while Pugh (74.5) is the 10th best guard. The only supposed weaker link is Rodney Hudson at center (22nd ranked OC), but this depends on whether you believe PFF more than ESPN, because in ESPN's metrics Hudson is one of the best centers in the NFL.
A Leg Up
Even with an expanded playoff field, winning the division is still primary and the clearest path towards securing a playoff spot. Consequently, in my opinion, this is the first truly key game of the 2022 season for the Rams. While the Bills game got way more hype, the result of this game will likely be more important in the grand scheme. It isn't a surprise that the Rams are favored to win, but I think it is an interesting matchup and one reason for that is because Arizona supposedly has the superior OL.
Can the Rams run the ball against the weak Card's run defense? Can the top ranked Cards pass rush get past the supposedly average Rams pass pro and get to Stafford? Will the Cards be able to generate any run game at all against the 2nd ranked Rams run defense? Can the Rams tackle Kyler Murray?