"Making the Cut"
As the Arizona Cardinals begin their quest to cut the team's roster size from 90 to 53 by the end of the preseason, we're taking a look at the key players at each position group and determining their odds of making the final cut.
Age: Gunter: 24, Mauro: 25
Experience: Gunter: 2nd NFL season, Mauro: 3rd NFL season
Contract status: Gunter: 2016-$652,479, 2017-$742,479, 2018-$832, 480, Mauro: 2016-$600,000
2015 season quick review: Gunter was the Cardinals' fourth round draft pick in 2015 out of Delaware State and ended up playing much more during his rookie season than any of the Arizona brass likely anticipated. After an injury sidelined Corey Peters, Gunter stepped in and made 11 starts during his first NFL season and accumulated 19 tackles and 1.0 sack. Though his numbers weren't eye-popping, Gunter provided the Cardinals with needed depth at a position that became thinner as the season went along. Mauro used the 2015 season to earn the respect of the Cardinals' coaching staff as the physical defensive end out of Stanford appeared in a career-high 14 games and made 16 tackles. Though Mauro was undrafted out of college, he fit in nicely as a rotational player for Arizona last season and could take on an even larger role this fall.
Projected roster status: The Cardinals have 10 players in camp along the defensive line with what likely amounts to seven spots at the position on the team's final roster. The most likely cut is Olsen Pierre, who spent much of last season on the Cardinals' practice squad and is signed to a futures contract for the 2016 season. Aside from Pierre, though, the picture is relatively unclear, as younger players like Gunter and Mauro will need to prove themselves in camp to secure a roster spot ahead of a veteran like Red Bryant and second year nose tackle Xavier Williams. Because Gunter played such a big role during his rookie season, we're confident he'll find a place on the Cardinals' roster at the end of training camp. We're also bullish on Mauro's chances of making the final roster, because he provides quite a bit of versatility. Through three days of training camp, Mauro has practiced as both a defensive end and as an outside linebacker with the Cardinals' second unit, and he and Gunter have been among the standouts. It's still quite early in camp, but we think if it comes down to keeping Bryant or Mauro, the Cardinals would elect to take the younger, more versatile player.
Projected depth chart status: Even though Gunter started 11 games last season, he has played behind veterans in Ed Stinson and Peters through the early days of training camp. Gunter can line up at nose tackle, as a 3-tech, or as a 5-tech, which means the Cardinals can pretty much plug him in at any spot along the defensive line. It might be tough for Gunter to stretch out to play the 7-technique and back up Calais Campbell, but that's where Mauro fits in on the depth chart. It will be interesting to see if Stinson remains with the first team defense when Frostee Rucker returns from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, but right now, we think Gunter is firmly entrenched as a second-team lineman. In training camp, we've seen Mauro play behind Campbell at defensive end and behind Chandler Jones as an outside linebacker, but each day, he has been playing with the second unit and we don't anticipate that will change as the preseason rolls along.
Position group analysis: Last year, the Cardinals were considered somewhat thin on the defensive line, as Peters' injury forced the team to throw Gunter into the fire as a rookie while an injury to Rucker left Arizona searching for a replacement before general manager Steve Keim settled on Bryant. This season, it's a different story as the defensive line looks like one of the team's deepest units in the early days of training camp. Even with Rucker on the PUP list and Nkemdiche sidelined with a high ankle sprain, the Cardinals have a strong two-deep with plenty of veteran experience. It's a testament to the team's depth to have a player as disruptive as Gunter working with the second unit, and if Nkemdiche lives up to his potential as a rookie, Arizona will have one of the strongest rotations of any defensive line unit in the NFC.
Moving forward: While both Gunter and Mauro are considered second team players along the defensive line, the franchise probably has different outlooks regarding the future of each player. The Cardinals are certainly happy to have Mauro in the fold and know his versatility is valuable, but Gunter is a higher priority for the front office as the team is hoping the second-year defensive lineman is able to build on a solid rookie season. It's important for an organization to focus time and energy on developing draft picks, and because Gunter has three seasons left on his contract, the Cardinals have a lot of flexibility with the Delaware State product. Arizona can wait and evaluate Gunter's continued evolution and maturation over the next few years, before deciding whether they want to extend him. While Mauro is a former undrafted free agent, he has carved out a niche with the Cardinals and demonstrated his consistency last season. If Mauro's career continues on an upward trajectory and he does showcase the capacity to play both outside linebacker and defensive end effectively, then the Stanford product may be in consideration for an extension after this season.
Overall value: The Cardinals were fortunate to have a fourth round draft pick in Gunter who was prepared to step in and contribute right away when Peters suffered an injury last year. If Gunter had been consistently overmatched, Arizona would have been in serious trouble on the defensive line. Instead, Gunter experienced some of the typical struggles rookies face, but also made a number of key contributions. As a middle round selection, Gunter won't cost the team more than $1 million annually over the next three seasons, which means Arizona once again stands to benefit from a favorable rookie contract. Mauro's value is also high relative to the money the Cardinals will pay him, as the $600,000 he stands to make is an example of the benefits an NFL organization reaps from having an undrafted free agent pan out. Though Mauro may never develop into an every-down player, at the rate the Cardinals are paying him, they don't need him to be one. It's important for a team to pay its starters well and keep the costs of backups low, and the Cardinals appear to have done that with their defensive linemen.