When the Arizona Cardinals finalized their 53-man roster at the end of the preseason, there were a few mild surprises, and one major move that caught everyone by surprise.
While most NFL franchises opt for a rotation of seven or at the maximum eight defensive linemen, the Cardinals decided to keep nine defensive linemen on their 53-man roster.
At the outset of camp, nine different defensive linemen were in serious contention for roster spots, and with injuries to veteran Frostee Rucker and rookie Robert Nkemdiche, there were plenty of opportunities for players to make their case that they belong on the team's 53-man roster.
When the Cardinals announced their roster, the decision to keep nine defensive linemen wasn't just a surprise from a numbers standpoint, but it came as a shock from a personnel standpoint, too. Arizona released veteran Red Bryant, who was on the cusp of earning a roster spot, and instead kept former undrafted free agent Olsen Pierre on the team's final roster in what was easily the most perplexing decision the Cardinals made.
Will the Cardinals find a way to use nine linemen, and did they even need to keep Pierre on the roster considering he has practice squad eligibility? Only time will tell.
Calais Campbell: The 2016 season figures to be a make-or-break year for one of the faces of the Cardinals' franchise, as Campbell is 30 years old and playing out the final season of one of the largest contracts Arizona has ever awarded to a defensive player. Campbell has been a Pro Bowl-caliber player in the past, and the team believes the addition of Chandler Jones at outside linebacker will deflect attention from the Cardinals' most versatile defensive lineman.
Corey Peters: One of the more remarkable aspects of the Cardinals' defensive line this season is that after Campbell, there's not a huge difference in talent between the second-most talented defensive lineman and the seventh-most talented player in the unit. By virtue of his role as the starting nose tackle, Peters could make the argument he's the second most important player in the group, and if he's finally able to stay healthy for a full season, Arizona has an effective two-gap player with good run-stopping capabilities at its disposal.
Rodney Gunter: Gunter flipped back and forth between the first and second team units during preseason camp, but we consider him one of the team's top three players on the line right now because of his versatility and his first step. Gunter started 11 games as a rookie at nose tackle after Peters was hurt, and the Delaware State product really came into his own by the end of the season. Gunter may be better suited to align as a 5-technique, and with Peters healthy, that's where he should see a lot of playing time this season.
Frostee Rucker: A starter for the Cardinals in the past, Rucker is listed as a first team defensive tackle this season but may not see the same share of reps he's accustomed to playing because of the team's improved depth throughout the unit. Rucker was hurt for much of camp, and at the age of 32, he just doesn't possess the same type of quick-twitch athleticism players like Gunter and Nkemdiche demonstrated in the closing weeks of the preseason.
Josh Mauro: The Stanford product went undrafted out of college, but has developed a reputation as a workhorse along the defensive line whose versatility rivals that of Campbell's. Mauro can play all three positions up front, and even lined up as a two-point stance as an outside linebacker early on in camp. Mauro doesn't have the best first step, but he uses a really strong lower body and an advanced arsenal of moves to overpower offensive linemen.
Robert Nkemdiche: Nkemdiche will begin the season as a rotational defensive end who likely spells Campbell and Rucker from time-to-time and sees most of his opportunities in passing downs situations, but he has the capabilities to become a full-service rush end before the season is up. Nkemdiche has the fastest quick-twitch movements of any Cardinals' defensive linemen, and the sheer power and force he demonstrated late in the preseason are just a glimpse into his potential. Keep in mind he missed fall camp with an ankle injury, so once he really gets into the swing of things, the first round draft pick could become a game-changer for Arizona.
Ed Stinson: Even though Stinson took a fair amount of first-team reps at the beginning of camp and even played ahead of Gunter, it was hard to get a read on his talents because he wasn't exactly overpowering and doesn't possess the same type of fluidity a player like Mauro or Nkemdiche demonstrated throughout camp. We thought Stinson might be a candidate to be released, but he's still a solid backup option on a deep defensive line.
Xavier Williams: Running back David Johnson isn't the only Northern Iowa product on the Cardinals' roster as this young nose tackle made the team out of sheer determination. Williams has an outstanding motor for a nose tackle, so much so that Arizona couldn't avoid putting the former undrafted free agent on the team's final roster this season. Williams is the rare nose tackle who can chase plays laterally down the line of scrimmage, and though he's not as talented of a two-gap player as Peters is, he has a desire to impact the game that's obvious when you watch him play.
Olsen Pierre: Pierre spent the entirety of camp practicing with the second and third team defensive lines, and though he had plenty of good reps, we never thought he had a serious chance of making the roster. Pierre has bounced around among several organizations during his short career, but the Cardinals obviously believe they have a use for him if they elected to keep Pierre ahead of a fourth tight end or a sixth wide receiver who would provide more special teams value.