Analysis: Frostee Rucker returns to Arizona

The Arizona Cardinals have made a commitment to filling their locker room with veteran leaders this offseason, and Frostee Rucker will be the elder statesman of the team's defensive line.

Due to salary cap limitations, the Arizona Cardinals haven't exactly made a concerted effort to significantly improve their roster this offseason.

General manager Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians were forced to allow three key defensive starters, Calais CampbellTony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger, to sign with other franchises on the first day of free agency, while the Cardinals pursued older, less expensive free agent options.

The Cardinals' approach to free agency should allow the franchise more flexibility to re-sign some of its prominent players in the future, but this offseason, the focus for Arizona has been adding players who can help a team in a "win now" mode.

With the additions of veterans like Karlos Dansby and Antoine Bethea, Arizona isn't attempting to find long-term solutions at key positions on its defense. Instead, the Cardinals have prioritized nabbing veteran players with a history of leading locker rooms who are hungry for another shot at a Super Bowl title. 

That's why Arizona's decision to re-sign veteran defensive lineman Frostee Rucker on Friday shouldn't have come as much of a surprise, even though Rucker's production has trailed off late in his career. Following the defection of Campbell to the Jaguars on the first day of free agency, Arizona was devoid of a tenured veteran presence at an important position group, and Rucker fit that bill.

Though Arizona is likely hoping second-year defensive end Robert Nkemdiche blows away his competition and beats out Rucker for a starting job, the Cardinals need Rucker to serve as a stopgap and a mentor in case Nkemdiche experiences more growing pains during his sophomore campaign.

Over the last four seasons, Rucker has played in 59 games for Arizona, starting just 22 and making just one start in the 2016 season. However, when Rucker has been on the field, he's proven he's still capable as a rotational defensive tackle, especially in pass rushing situations. While he's certainly not an every down player at this point in his career, Rucker isn't a liability for Arizona as a second unit substitute, and that's important at a position group where substitutes are relied on frequently. 

Rucker's main priority in 2017 will likely be tag-teaming with veteran nose tackle Corey Peters to provide guidance and leadership for a unit with intriguing young talent that will undoubtedly enter this season with question marks.

Is former undrafted free agent Josh Mauro a full service starter at defensive end? Can third-year tackle Rodney Gunter provide enough consistency to anchor the Cardinals' second team defensive line? Will Nkemdiche impress the coaching staff enough to merit consideration as a full-time starter after a rookie season filled with questions about his desire and motor?

It's up to Rucker to help many of Arizona's young linemen realize their potential, because with Campbell out of the room, Rucker is going to be the most trusted veteran voice the Cardinals have along their defensive line. At this point, no Cardinals' linemen has been with the team for a longer period of time than Rucker, and no player has experienced the types of ups and downs that he has throughout his career.

If Rucker proves he's still generally competent on passing downs and can provide Arizona's younger, more talented linemen with a veteran voice to rely on, then the Cardinals will likely consider the decision to bring him back in 2017 a success. 

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