Arizona Cardinals' roster evaluation: Grading the defensive line

The Arizona Cardinals' defensive line is as deep as any unit on the team, which will make for some tough evaluations at the end of fall camp.

After the Arizona Cardinals released their first depth chart of the fall on Monday, we released our first roster evaluation with evaluations of each offensive lineman's odds of making the final 53-man roster.

Our roster evaluation followed up our 53-man roster projection 1.0, which served as our first model for projecting Arizona's regular season roster. 

Position battles are critical in every camp, and after watching many of the Cardinals' preseason practices in person, our goal is to provide you with as much perspective as possible regarding the future of every player on the current 90-man roster.

The NFL is about much more than star players, as Arizona learned last season when a lack of defensive line depth forced the team to sign Dwight Freeney and Red Bryant in the middle of the season.

This year, the Cardinals have stocked up on defensive line talent, and will now face difficult decisions regarding which players the team will likely keep. As we did with the offensive line and will do with other position groups, we're ranking each defensive lineman's chances at making the team in Arizona on a 4-3-2-1 scale.

Our evaluation key

4: A near-lock for the final roster. A player who should start for the Cardinals and see considerable playing time, barring an injury.

3: Above average odds to make the final roster. A player who should factor into the regular rotation, and would only be cut if the player experienced a significant drop off in performance or is dropped for salary considerations.

2: Below average odds to make the final roster. A player who is right on the brink, and should remain on the team when NFL franchises are forced to cut their rosters from 90 to 75 players. This player will struggle to make the 53-man roster, and may only make the roster in the event of an injury or because he fits a particular need.

1: Highly unlikely to make the final roster. A player who may not make the cut when the team reduces its roster size to 75 players, and a player who is at best considered a practice squad candidate.

Defensive linemen

Calais Campbell: 4-Though Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu and Chandler Jones might mean more to the overall success of the defense this season, Campbell is still the most important defensive lineman in the fold for the Cardinals. A team leader in every aspect, Campbell is the highest-paid defensive lineman in football and for good reason. He can line up at every position on the Cardinals' front, and can handle double teams which free up pass rushers. Through fall camp, Campbell has still looked a cut above the rest of the Cardinals' linemen, and he's the piece that makes this unit go. 

Rodney Gunter: 4-Gunter hasn't played much with the first team in the practices we've analyzed closely, which is why his spot on the first team defense on the Cardinals' depth chart was somewhat surprising. Perhaps the Cardinals have wanted to test Ed Stinson because they know what they have in Gunter, but Gunter has shredded blocks from the second team offensive line throughout camp and looks poised to build off his successful rookie campaign. Gunter played quite a bit of nose last year, but has the ability to line up in a 3-tech or a 5-tech and has even succeeded in the reps we've watched him play the 7-tech during camp. That type of versatility makes him automatically more valuable, and he could be an underrated piece for the Cardinals this season.

Robert Nkemdiche: 4-Even though Nkemdiche hasn't played a single rep during fall camp, if he's healthy by the time the season starts (and the Cardinals have indicated he will be), there's no doubt he'll make the 53-man roster. Teams don't put first round draft picks on the practice squad if they're not ready to play, they simply keep them on the 53-man roster and don't activate them on game day (See D.J. Humphries, 2015). Nkemdiche might not begin the season in the Cardinals' regular rotation and could suffer through a few games on the inactive list, but he's got eye-popping potential and could thrive opposite Campbell or even next to him if the Cardinals elect to play the two alongside one another. The Cardinals have to be cautious with Nkemdiche when he returns, but this rookie won't have any problems making the team.

Corey Peters: 3-Even though Peters has been sidelined in each of the last two seasons with injuries, the Cardinals expect him to start at nose tackle this season and he's performed well during camp. It's difficult for nose tackles to stand out among defensive linemen because they often face more double teams and need to anchor at the line of scrimmage instead of generating a pass rush, but Peters has looked strong against the run and hasn't given center A.Q. Shipley any ground to work with. If Peters can stay healthy, his spot is secure. Still, former undrafted free agent Xavier Williams has impressed during his first team reps during camp, so if the Cardinals fall in love with Williams and need a player to cut, Peters could fall into the discussion. It's an extreme long shot, but it's the reason Peters isn't receiving a '4' grade from us. 

Josh Mauro: 3-Mauro has been counted out for much of his career, as he was a late-bloomer at Stanford and went undrafted out of college. Even in Cardinals' camps of the past, Mauro has done just enough to stick around and make the roster, but never enough to merit consideration as more than a rotational player. In this year's camp, Mauro has been a pass rushing machine off the edge, and has played with the first, second and third team defensive lines. Anything the Cardinals have asked of him, Mauro has answered the call. That includes playing outside linebacker and rushing the passer from a two-point stance, which Mauro has done effectively this camp. When you have a good motor and you're a versatile player, you typically fall into favor with Bruce Arians, and we think Mauro has done that this fall.

Ed Stinson: 3-Stinson has taken a considerable amount of first team reps throughout the camp opposite Campbell and alongside Peters in a five-technique, but we've been more impressed with some of the team's other defensive linemen like Gunter and Mauro. Stinson played in 15 games last season and made two starts, but doesn't seem to have any dynamic skill or flashy attribute many of the Cardinals' other linemen possess. Still, Stinson is solid in his own right and can help the team as a rotational lineman, and he's still under team control for two more seasons on his rookie contract, so he provides a good value.

Frostee Rucker: 2.5-From the outset of camp, we liked Rucker's chances to make the team even though the aging veteran may not have the same type of firepower he used to. We thought Rucker could rotate with Nkemdiche and help show the rookie the ropes in what is likely Rucker's final season in Arizona, but so far, Rucker hasn't been lifted from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list and we haven't received much word on his progress after he underwent offseason surgery to heal a lingering ankle issue. Reports surfaced after his surgery that Rucker would be back in time for training camp, and now that the Cardinals are nearly two full weeks in, we're starting to question Rucker's roster status. 

Xavier Williams: 2-Williams has really impressed us at fall camp with his motor and passion on the defensive line, and he's always around the ball when the second team defense faces the run. Williams has good side-to-side mobility and uses his hands well to create separation when he engages offensive linemen, and he's been one of the more pleasant surprises of camp to this point. Still, Williams probably has to use the Cardinals' preseason games to play himself into a job, because Arizona typically keeps just seven defensive linemen and we consider him the eighth best on the field right now. Defensive linemen are injury prone, though, and if Williams sticks it out through fall camp and remains healthy, there could be a spot waiting for him at the end if another player goes down. Unfortunately for Williams, he still has practice squad eligibility, which few other linemen on the Cardinals' roster have, so he could be a candidate if the current situation holds steady.

Red Bryant: 2-Bryant was a mid season addition for the Cardinals last year who made a strong enough impression that general manager Steve Keim felt inclined to bring him back in 2016. Through training camp so far, Bryant has been stuck on the second and third team defenses, and hasn't made a convincing enough case that he's a better player than Williams. Bryant provides value as a veteran signed to a minimum contract and if it comes down to choosing between the two players, the easiest way for Arizona to keep both is to assign Williams to the practice squad. However, if the team is leaning toward Williams, then Bryant could be the odd man out as the Cardinals may fear Williams would be picked up by another franchise.

Olsen Pierre: 1-Pierre has quietly put together a fine camp, but he knew coming in the odds were against him. A few practices ago, Pierre was switching off between the first and second team, but that's because four different linemen were sidelined with ailments. That's the type of situation that has to happen for Pierre to earn a spot with the Cardinals, because it's highly unlikely he would beat out Williams or Bryant. Pierre doesn't have a particularly strong lower body, and has been pushed off the line of scrimmage in some reps. If he can figure out how to hold his ground better, Pierre has actually demonstrated strong abilities with his hands to shed blocks and step into running lanes. 


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