Position capsule: Defensive line

The Arizona Cardinals may be without nine-year veteran Calais Campbell for the first time in a decade as the team weighs the pros and cons of bringing back the potentially high-priced free agent.

Position capsule: Defensive line

Returners:  Corey PetersRobert NkemdicheRodney GunterJosh MauroEd StinsonXavier Williams

Free Agents: Calais CampbellFrostee RuckerOlsen Pierre

Contracts: Peters: 2017-$3,660,418, Nkemdiche: 2017-$1,954,681, 2018-$2,345,618, 2019-$2,736,555, Gunter: 2017-$742,479, 2018-$832,480, Mauro: 2017-$750,000, 2018-$1,300,000 Stinson: 2017-$736,685, Williams: 2017-$617,668

Current roster number: 6

Ideal roster number: 7-9

2016 performance: Aside from finishing the season with the NFL team lead in sacks, the Arizona Cardinals' defense was also one of the top run-stopping units in the league, in large part thanks to impressive play from the team's defensive line.

Even though Nkemdiche, the team's first round draft choice in 2016, hardly made an impact, the Cardinals were stout up front all season. Campbell, a ninth year veteran, turned in a Pro Bowl worthy season, and though he wasn't selected for the NFC roster, his presence along the defensive line was incredibly important in deterring opposing rushing attacks.

A season after suffering a devastating injury, Peters returned in top form and proved he could be one of the top nose tackles in the conference when healthy. Peters is a two-gap player who commanded attention from offensive linemen, freeing up the team's edge rushers on passing downs and holding his own by swallowing up lanes on run plays.

Gunter and Mauro both proved more than serviceable in 2016, especially Mauro, who set career highs in starts (13) and tackles (42) and demonstrated why versatility is so key along the defensive line. With Mauro in the game, the Cardinals are free to stunt defensive linemen and slant across gaps, because he has the brute strength at the line of scrimmage to play on both the exterior and the interior. 

The major disappointments for Arizona were Nkemdiche, who likely wouldn't have received much opportunity if he was ready to play, and Stinson, who never made much of an impact and spent most of the year battling injuries. Further down the depth chart, neither Williams or Pierre ever really received meaningful opportunities, because the first four-to-five players in the rotation were so effective this season. 

2017 readiness: Perhaps the most difficult decision the Cardinals' front office will make this offseason is whether or not the team wants to bring back Campbell after nine years of service with the franchise. The smart move is likely to let Campbell walk and allow him to collect his market value in free agency, but the sentimental move is to bring him back for one-to-two more seasons as the Cardinals' continue pushing for a title during a closing championship window.

If Campbell doesn't return, expect the team to give Nkemdiche the opportunity to win a starting job next season. He possesses the quick-twitch athletic abilities to step in and pick up where Campbell left off, he's just much more raw and at this point, hasn't demonstrated consistency. 

With Peters, Gunter and Mauro all set to return, the Cardinals have an underrated yet solid core of players who know what it takes to win in the trenches and can allow the team's edge rushers, Chandler Jones and Markus Golden, to continue to wreak havoc on the perimeter of the line of scrimmage. 

Even if Campbell doesn't return, this group should remain one of the NFC's deepest defensive lines, especially if Nkemdiche can experience the same kind of growth in his second season that Golden and 2015 first round draft choice D.J. Humphries did as well. 

The long haul: Whether or not he's capable of serving as the answer in the long-term, the Cardinals drafted Nkemdiche with the goal of allowing him to grow into the focal point of the team's defensive line. While it may take a year or two longer than they anticipated, the Cardinals aren't going to give up on Nkemdiche easily and they likely won't try to spend a large sum of money to add reinforcements around him in the short term.

One of the more interesting questions for the long haul is what the team expects to do at nose tackle following the 2017 season, when Peters' contract is up. The 28-year-old defensive tackle has battled injuries during his career and isn't a true long-term solution, so the Cardinals may experiment with drafting a nose in the middle rounds this year if the team feels as if it has depth issues at other positions patched up. 

Because the team still has relatively young players in Nkemdiche, Mauro and Gunter in the fold, the long haul along the defensive line isn't as great of a concern for Arizona as other units currently are. 

Draft need: Low to moderate priority 

Position overview: The Cardinals have the potential to create impressive balance with their defense over the next few seasons if some of the team's younger defensive linemen like Nkemdiche, Gunter and perhaps Williams become more comfortable in their roles. With superstars locked up for the long-term in the secondary in Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu as well as a dominant edge-rusher of the future in Golden under contract for at least two more years, the Cardinals can seemingly have playmakers at every level of the defense and will have built primarily through the draft. Even linebacker Deone Bucannon is a former first round pick.

The Cardinals have drafted so well over the past few years on the defensive side of the ball that they may not have room to bring back Campbell and linebacker Kevin Minter, a pair of players who have started for the team throughout their careers. Arizona would of course like to feel more comfortable about Nkemdiche's future as a playmaker before proceeding forward without Campbell, but sometimes, a front office must take calculated risks to do what's best for the future of the organization. 


CardinalsSource Top Stories