Arizona Cardinals pre-NFL Draft defensive line outlook

With an aging core and a pair of expiring contracts, the Arizona Cardinals could look to add through the draft at defensive line.

Current Roster Number: 8 (Red Bryant, Calais Campbell, Rodney Gunter, Josh Mauro, Corey Peters, Olsen Pierre, Frostee Rucker, Ed Stinson) 

Ideal Roster Number: 8-9

Returning Starters: 3-3 (Campbell, Gunter, Rucker)

Roster Composition: Arizona’s 3-4 defensive scheme allows for the Cardinals to build out their roster with fewer true defensive linemen than teams that operate in a 4-3 defense.

A team that runs a 3-4 can generally get away with having eight to nine defensive linemen on the 53-man roster and suit up as few as six or seven on game day depending on the versatility of its players, whereas a team with a 4-3 scheme needs more bodies available.

The Cardinals return all three starters along the defensive line in Calais CampbellRodney Gunter and Frostee Rucker, yet this is a position general manager Steve Keim could possibly address early in the draft or in free agency because of an aging core.

Though Campbell’s base salary is slightly less than cornerback Patrick Peterson’s, his $2.5 million option bonus helps make him Arizona’s third highest-paid player behind Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald.

With Campbell’s contract set to expire at the end of the 2016 season, the Cardinals will have a difficult decision to make whether they want to keep the soon-to-be-30 veteran in the fold.

Campbell registered just 5.0 sacks in 2015, which marked his lowest total since he did not record a sack during his rookie season in 2008, but he’s a steady contributor who has served as a team captain.

The Cardinals also return starters in 11-year veteran Frostee Rucker and nose tackle Rodney Gunter. Rucker is 32 years old and his contract is set to expire at the end of this season, while Gunter was selected in the fourth round of the 2015 draft and will remain under contract through the 2018 season.

Gunter stepped in after Corey Peters suffered a season-ending Achilles’ injury during fall camp last season, and the anticipation is that the pair will battle for playing time at nose tackle.

Aside from Peters, the Cardinals also return Red Bryant, Josh Mauro and Ed Stinson from last year’s roster.

Mauro was the most productive member of the trio recording 16 tackles and matching Stinson with 1.0 sack, but all three of these players are sub-package reserves with niche roles.

Miami Hurricanes product and undrafted free agent Olsen Pierre is the eighth defensive lineman listed on the roster, but his odds of making the team in fall camp are slim.  

With eight players currently on the roster and two starters in the latter half of their careers, the Cardinals will likely look to bring in at least one and potentially two players who will challenge for a roster spot. Whether they do that through the draft or through free agency remains to be seen, but it’s possible the changing composition of this position group will force the team to add a cheaper component with higher upside than players like Mauro and Stinson.

Draft Outlook

It wouldn’t come as a surprise to see Keim and head coach Bruce Arians opt for a versatile 3-4 defensive end in the first round, especially considering Campbell and Rucker have expiring contracts.

Arizona addressed its desperate need for a pass rusher when it acquired outside linebacker Chandler Jones from the Patriots in exchange for a second round pick, but the Cardinals could solidify the defensive front in a significant way if they hit on a prospect like Robert Nkemdiche of Ole Miss at the end of the first round.

If the Cardinals pass on a defensive lineman in their first two selections (1st round, 3rd round), it would still come as a surprise to see them pass up the opportunity to add a lineman later in the draft.


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