By Mark Eckel, Player Engagement Insider
Right side, left side, tackle, guard, now center, Cole Toner knows that his versatility across the offensive line could be his ticket to a long ride in the NFL.
Toner, in his second year with the Arizona Cardinals after being the team’s fifth-round Draft pick in 2016, is playing his second position with the Cards and his third in three years dating back to his college days.
“Versatility is the name of the game today, especially in O-line play,’’ Toner said. “Most games you dress seven (offensive linemen), sometimes eight, but mostly seven so, those two guys need to play multiple positions. This gives me a chance to play one of three, or four or even five spots. That’s good for me.’’
Toner, 6’5” and 300 pounds, played right tackle well enough in college to become the first offensive lineman drafted out of Harvard since Matt Birk back in 1998. If you want to make that comparison, Birk was a six-time Pro Bowl selection with the Minnesota Vikings and later won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens.
“I have a lot to live up to if that’s the case,’’ Toner said of following in Birk’s Crimson footsteps.
After a rookie season in which Toner watched, learned and saw action in two games for the Cardinals at guard, the team has decided to let him try center where he’s vying for the back-up spot behind six-year veteran A.Q. Shipley.
So, in his second season, Toner is learning his second new position. Thus far through the team’s spring OTAs, he feels it’s going pretty well.
“I am feeling more comfortable with the team, with my teammates, hanging out with my teammates, knowing the offense more,’’ Toner said of the change from NFL season one to season two. “One thing I’ve noticed, just in O-line drills in practice, is knowing where my feet need to go, where my hands need to go, that kind of stuff.
“The offense we ran at Harvard was spread, no huddle, it was totally different than what we have here. It took some getting used to, but I think I figured it out.’’
The challenge now for the Harvard graduate, out of Greenwood, Indiana, is to figure out the team’s line calls and make sure his line mates are aligned correctly before every snap.
Oh yeah, and then there’s the snap itself.
“The last time I played center was my freshman year in high school. I was a tackle basically my whole life until I got here and moved to guard,’’ Toner said. “I didn’t play much center last year, but now I’m playing more center/guard, than guard/tackle. I think I’m doing a good job, but the thing is you have to learn the offense even more than you did in the past because you have to learn all the calls. But I like being in that position. I think I can get all the guys in the right spot. It just takes a lot of reps, a lot of seeing defenses over time, seeing different looks, different stunts. It will take some time, but I feel I’m doing a good job.’’
Toner made the huge leap from the Ivy League to the NFL as a rookie, now he’s taking the next step with another new position to help elongate his career.
“For me it was a combination of both the speed and quickness of the game and the players, and the power they can generate, especially defensive tackles,’’ Toner said of going from Harvard to the Cardinals. “In the NFL, it’s a different animal no matter where you’re playing. If you’re a tackle, you’re blocking a freak outside. If you’re inside, you’re blocking a behemoth.’’