"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: Bryant: 32, Rucker: 32
Experience: Bryant: 9th NFL season, Rucker: 11th NFL season
Contract status: Bryant: 2016-$680,000, Rucker: 2016-$1,353,125
2015 season quick review: Bryant began the 2015 season as a free agent after being cut by the Jacksonville Jaguars following the 2014 campaign. As Cardinals' fans learned in "All or Nothing," Bryant was on vacation with his family heading into Thanksgiving weekend when general manager Steve Keim asked him to sign with the Cardinals. The eighth-year NFL veteran flew into Phoenix and played in six games while recording five tackles for Arizona in a rotational role. Rucker began the 2015 season in a starting role for Arizona, after playing mostly as a rotational defensive lineman through his first two seasons with the franchise. Even though a mid season injury kept him off the field for three weeks, Rucker still started 13 games, recorded 28 tackles, and notched 3.0 sacks.
Projected roster status: While both Bryant and Rucker bring valuable veteran experience to the Cardinals' roster, the team's youth along the defensive line will make it tough for both players to stick with Arizona heading into the regular season. That's not to say that either player is in serious danger of missing out on a roster spot, but the task of making the team isn't as simple as it appears for Bryant and Rucker. Speculation has existed throughout the offseason as to whether Rucker, who is set to make upward of $1.35 million, is a candidate for a salary dump, and his status on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list likely isn't helping his cause right now. However, if the Cardinals did elect to cut Rucker to create cap space, the team would be saving less than $1 million in 2016, so it's not a move that would pay long-term dividends. With Ed Stinson's status as a first team defensive tackle so far during camp and Josh Mauro's solid play, Arizona's younger players are demonstrating improvement and giving the front office and coaching staff a lot to think about. If all 10 defensive linemen are healthy at the end of camp, we think Bryant, not Rucker, will join Olsen Pierre and Xavier Williams as the team's cuts from the unit. Because Rucker's salary dump wouldn't save the team a ton of money, we're inclined to think the organization will keep the player who was more productive last season. However, because defensive line is such a physically demanding position, we think it's more likely the team will be dealing with at least an injury or two and will be able to keep both Rucker and Bryant on the roster so long as they finish camp in strong physical condition.
Projected depth chart status: The Cardinals rotate defensive linemen more frequently than personnel at any other position, which means depth chart designations aren't as significant. Yes, Calais Campbell will see more reps than everyone else, but aside from Campbell, the Cardinals will be able to rotate the rest of their starting line and their second string and not incur a significant drop off in production. If Rucker returns to full health and is unable to recoup his starting spot from Stinson during camp, the team may consider the option of cutting him more seriously. However, we think Rucker has one more year left in him in a starting capacity, especially if the Cardinals rotate their defensive linemen as anticipated. Bryant, meanwhile, is unlikely to start unless the Cardinals' depth becomes depleted. Bryant is a valuable option as a second team nose tackle or 3-tech, but he doesn't possess the motor at this point in his career to play as many downs as a starting lineman would.
Position group analysis: The Cardinals' defensive line has been one of the most impressive units during the first four days of training camp. Players like Campbell and Corey Peters have played well with the first unit, while the depth of the second team has really given Arizona's second team offensive line fits. Gunter and Mauro look much improved after last season and neither player figures to command a starting role this season. The depth, though, is what makes the situations for Bryant and Rucker more complicated. If Arizona feels its second team is already strong enough and the team can take a chance on a player like Williams to keep the unit young, the veterans may be the odd men out. Depth, however, is fleeting, and the Cardinals learned that a season ago. The defensive line suffered from repeated injuries, and that's why even with a stable of talent returning, the team elected to pursue Robert Nkemdiche in the first round of the draft.
Moving forward: There have been points in time where both Bryant and Rucker were key figures within NFL organizations, and franchises had plans to keep each player around for the long haul. However, with both players nearing the end of their careers, those days have come and gone. Each player is 32 years old, and while quarterbacks are playing into their late 30s now on a consistent basis, the same can't be said for defensive linemen, especially those on the interior. If either Bryant or Rucker wants to play beyond this season, they will likely have to agree to a one-year contract or even an incentive-laden deal contingent on performance-based bonuses. Such is life in the NFL, as teams are hungry for youth and fresh legs at a position which requires incredible durability.
Overall value: The Arizona Cardinals are in an intriguing position when it comes to judging the overall value of their defensive linemen because the difference in many of their players' contracts is so striking. Campbell has the highest salary of any defensive lineman in the league as the Miami product is set to make more than $15 million this season, while Rucker, who could be in line to start, will make $1.35 million. Rucker isn't alone on the low end of the spectrum, as Bryant, Gunter, Mauro and Stinson will all make less than $800,000 this year. Including Peters, all 10 of Arizona's defensive linemen outside of Campbell have cap hits ranking 80th or lower among players at the same position around the league. So even though Rucker will make $1.35 million if he ends up making the Cardinals' roster, he'll still be the 123rd highest-paid defensive lineman in the NFL, which suggests his contract is a relative bargain. Ultimately, there are a few ways to judge Rucker and Bryant's contracts, but we think the best way of doing so is looking around at the league as a whole because it puts into perspective the type of value the veterans can provide Arizona at a relatively low cost. While Rucker may be more expensive than some of the other defensive linemen on his own team, if he matched his production from 2015 this year, he would certainly look like a bargain on a league-wide scale.