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Replacing Calais Campbell may be a numbers game for Cardinals

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians watches his team during an OTA practice May 16. (Photo by Adam Green/Arizona Sports)
LISTEN: Josh Mauro, Cardinals defensive end

TEMPE, Ariz. — The scene on the first day of Arizona Cardinals OTAs was strange in that some familiar jersey numbers were being worn by unfamiliar players.

Donning Tony Jefferson’s 22 was rookie running back T.J. Logan, while receiver Jeremy Ross wore Michael Floyd’s 15 and Rudy Ford was in Stepfan Taylor’s No. 30.

But perhaps the most jarring change was for No. 93, which was Calais Campbell’s for nine seasons and is now being represented by linebacker Jarvis Jones.

Nevermind the fact that at 6-foot-3 and 248 pounds Jones is significantly smaller than the massive Campbell, it’s just that seeing someone else in that jersey was a shock to the system.

Such is life in the NFL, however, and replacing Campbell is simply something the team will have to do.

“It’s definitely going to be a huge loss for us, Calais was a huge part of what we did,” defensive lineman Corey Peters said. “But I think our focus now, collectively, is just trying to replace that production that he gave us.

“I think we have a lot of capable guys; it’s probably going to have to come from everybody stepping their game up and everybody doing better. But I think we’ve got the talent and the guys to get it done.”

Peters added he is looking forward to it, if only because Campbell’s departure has now created an opportunity that was not there before.

Last season, Campbell accounted for 63 total tackles, 18 tackles for loss, eight sacks, seven passes defensed, 27 QB hits and 26 QB pressures.

The void left behind is larger than his 6-foot-8, 300-pound frame, though the Cardinals must have felt pretty good about their in-house options given that the defensive line was not really addressed in free agency or the draft.

From that, one could infer the team is counting on Peters and veteran Frostee Rucker as well as younger players Robert Nkemdiche, Rodney Gunter, Josh Mauro, Xavier Williams and Olsen Pierre.

Healthy last season, Peters collected 30 tackles, eight tackles for loss, 13 QB pressures and two QB hits, and Rucker battled injury to produce 25 tackles, six tackles for loss, four QB pressures and five QB hits.

Aside from them, however, there is a mixed bag of high draft picks, overachievers and potential.

“I think it’s definitely going to have to be a group effort,” Peters said. “You don’t replace an All-Pro-level guy like that overnight, but Robert Nkemdiche, Rodney Gunter — those guys have been doing well this entire offseason, everybody’s been here working out, working hard.

“I’m expecting big things and I don’t think that you’ll see too much of a drop-off from the defensive line as a group.”

Campbell left Arizona second on the franchise’s all-time sacks list with 56.5, while the players left to replace him have combined for 35.5 sacks in their respective careers.

That’s not to say it will not work out, however.

Earlier this week, Cardinals defensive line coach Brentson Buckner praised Nkemdiche’s progress before saying he felt like Mauro is the one most likely to break out in 2017.

That sentiment was echoed by Cardinals coach Bruce Arians.

“Josh could be our starter,” Arians said. “Josh only plays great every time he gets on the field. He doesn’t play good — he plays great.”

Arians added Mauro will improve his pass rush but is “a great run defender and a tenacious player.”

The 26-year-old Mauro has been with the Cardinals since 2014 and has seen his role grow at a steady pace.

“I just always keep confidence in myself and my ability and just through my preparation and the work that we put in during the week,” Mauro told Bickley and Marotta on 98.7 FM, Arizona’s Sports Station Wednesday. “Even since college, coaches tell you it doesn’t matter how many snaps you play as long as you make them good and productive plays.”

Like Peters, Mauro understands how different life will be without Campbell, but is also confident in what the team has and is encouraged by how the group has looked in early practices.

That includes Gunter, a 2015 fourth-round pick who started 11 games as a rookie but just one last season.

Entering his third NFL season, the former Delaware State product whom the Cardinals traded up in order to select said he is feeling better and more confident than ever.

The game has slowed down for him, he said, and he now has a much better idea of how to succeed as an NFL player — even if he is not often talked about.

“The underdog always has to prove himself,” he said, noting he’s been an underdog all his life.

“I’m used to it; I’ve got to prove to the world again, prove to myself, my doubters, my fans. I’m still here.”

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