This feature on Arizona Cardinals offensive lineman L.J. Shelton appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Aug. 7, 2003.

Healthy Shelton expecting big year

By Ed Odeven

Despite playing with an injured right ankle last season, L.J. Shelton had his finest all-around season as a pro.

The injury, originally a sprain, occurred in Week 2 against the Seattle Seahawks.

Now, the Arizona Cardinals’ starting left tackle is looking forward to having an even more productive, injury-free season. He underwent arthroscopic ankle surgery on May 2. That was followed by eight weeks of rehabilitation, which ended just before the start of training camp.

“I had a bad sprain. I played through it for 14 games, so it worked out pretty good for me, being that I was hurt,” Shelton said after Thursday’s morning practice at NAU’s East Fields. “But it’s a scary feeling out there not knowing what’s going on, then finding out later that there’s a piece of bone floating around in there.”

While enduring the pain in his ankle, Shelton was able to concentrate on fine-tuning his skills.

“My injury forced me to focus on my technique a whole lot more, so I was able to really get my feet under my balance,” said Shelton, whose father, Lonnie, was a 10-year pro in the NBA and played for the 1978 NBA champion Seattle SuperSonics.

“I had to really focus on the footwork to keep my balance because the muscles in my ankle weren’t strong.”

Which is why he’s not trying to do too much in the preseason.

“I’m a little rusty because I didn’t do any of the mini-camps because of my off-season surgery. I’m not too hard on myself right now,” he said. “I know I’m able to play, but I want to play at a high level. I’m not quite there yet. I have four preseason games and a bunch more practices to get me there, so I’m not too worried about it right now.”

Adding depth to the o-line has been a key objective for the Cardinals. Guard Cameron Spikes, who played for the Houston Texans last year, was a free-agent pickup during the off-season. Guys like centers Steve Grace and Jason Starkey; tackles Reggie Wells, Kendrick Rogers and Watts Sanderson; guards Tony Wragge and Teag Whitting; and guard/tackle Raleigh Roundtree (who is recovering from a splenectomy) are vying for spots on the roster. Another lineman, Frank Garcia, will miss the first four games of the regular season after violating the NFL’s drug policy by testing positive for ephedra.

In 2002, the Cardinals’ starting offensive line was besieged by injuries. Center Mike Gruttaduria (knee), tackle Leonard Davis (knee), guard Pete Kendall (knee) and tackle Anthony Clement (triceps) all missed games. Shelton was the only one to start all 16 games.

“We’re not just counting on five guys to get it done,” Shelton said. “We’re counting on all eight or nine guys to make this team and get it done. We’re aware that it’s hard for the whole line to make it through 16 games. Injuries are going to happen. We’ve got to be able to have guys step in.”

When you’re 6-foot-6 and 335 pounds, like Shelton, size and strength are the physical attributes people notice about you right away. The untrained eye might not see how exceptional Shelton’s footwork is.

“His biggest asset is his feet,” offensive line coach Pete Hoener said. “He has remarkable feet for a big man. (He has) quick feet, he’s athletic, he has great balance, and those are things that you need to have playing left tackle.

“I think he’s a heck of a player. He’s very gifted athletically. He understands the game. Again, once he continues to master his techniques he could be one of the best.”

Shelton, a No. 1 pick (21st overall) by the Cardinals in the 1999 draft, is in the final year of a five-year deal, a year in which he’ll make $560,000. He said he’s not dwelling on getting a new contract.

Instead, his focus is on the football field.

“Last year was a big year for me just as a confidence-booster, my first year playing consistently at a high level,” Shelton said. “I just want to carry that over to this year. If I can build on last year, then all the rest of it financially will take care of itself.”