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Cardinals pre-camp preview: Can interior D-linemen rise above average?

Rodney Gunter #95 and Corey Peters #98 of the Arizona Cardinals celebrate a defensive stop in the third quarter against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on December 30, 2018 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

The Arizona Cardinals report to duty on July 24 and open 2019 training camp with their first practice the following day. To preview the storylines heading into head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s first year on the job, let’s take a look at the roster by position groups.

When it comes to the interior defensive line, there are familiar faces and a key free agent addition as reasons to be hopeful. Depth might be a concern, but two rookies have the opportunity to grab ahold of reserve spots on the roster.


Projected starters

DT: Corey Peters, Rodney Gunter

DE: Darius Philon

Depth

DT: Vincent Valentine, Terrell McClain, Miles Brown

DE: Zach Allen, Robert Nkemdiche, Michael Dogbe, Immanuel Turner

Biggest storyline

Arizona shouldn’t have to worry about developing a pass-rush with Chandler Jones and Terrell Suggs at outside linebacker. A switch back to the 3-4 defense after spending a year in the 4-3 should benefit that group — and when that group is running on all cylinders, that means the switch should also benefit the team’s interior defensive linemen.

Corey Peters, 31, returns as the vocal leader and face of stability in the heart of the Cardinals defense. Also back is Rodney Gunter, whose career season in 2018 led to a one-year re-signing with Arizona instead of a payday elsewhere.

Gunter, like Peters, has been a healthy body. The 2015 fourth-round pick by Arizona appeared in 16 games in each of his four NFL seasons and last year posted 44 tackles with 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. He’d previously not posted more than 19 tackles over a season while playing mostly as a backup.

The Cardinals shored up their expected trio of starting interior linemen by signing Darius Philon away from the Los Angeles Chargers. He’s posted two strong years in a row of 64 combined tackles and 8.5 sacks with two forced fumbles.

That group is reliable in terms of availability and production. For the sake of projecting, Arizona can have hope that Philon, 25, and Gunter, 27, haven’t reached their ceilings quite yet.

X-factor

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

It may not impact the on-field product, but Arizona could dream of it.

Robert Nkemdiche’s NFL future remains in question for all the wrong reasons.

Arizona passed on picking up a fifth-year option for his rookie deal this May after inconsistent performances, a slow learning curve and injuries piled up. And after the athletic lineman flashed his massive potential in 2018, an ACL injury late in the season puts his 2019 season in question. Then came two offseason traffic stops, one of which led to an arrest, for speeding and driving on a suspended license.

Cardinals general manager Steve Keim this offseason has acted as if his 2016 first-round pick is a lost cause, signing Philon and bringing back Gunter on a one-year deal, then drafting two more defensive ends in Zach Allen and Michael Dogbe.

“I certainly am not going to be one to hide behind anything, and looking at it now based on the fact that (Nkemdiche) was a first-round pick and the limited time on the field and production on the field, you would certainly have to question that draft pick,”  Keim told Doug & Wolf on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station in December.

“I would expect that he’ll heal up fine. Again, he’s got to come back with a chip on his shoulder. If he wants an opportunity to have a long-term career, he has got to do it on the field.”

Whether Nkemdiche will heal up in time — and if Arizona will even require his services — to play for his next NFL contract remains to be seen.

Under the radar

— Third-round pick and Boston College product Zach Allen might have gone under the radar in a draft class where quarterback Kyler Murray, corner Byron Murphy, plus receivers Andy Isabella and Hakeem Butler will likely be relied upon from Day 1. But Allen has a good chance to force his way into playing time as a smart, high-motor defensive end with a unique skillset.

“Zach Allen … was one of the players that I may have been most fond of during the evaluation process,” Keim said after drafting Allen. “This guy plays like his hair’s on fire, he’s relentless, he does different things from a pass-rusher standpoint that a lot of defensive ends and five techniques don’t do. So he’s a guy that not only brings the character that we’re looking for, but he brings the toughness and intensity that we’re looking for.”

Fellow draft pick Michael Dogbe could also have an opportunity to earn a spot on the roster as a backup end with little else certain on the depth chart.

— While Allen and Dogbe give Arizona more youthful bodies at defensive end, Terrell McClain and Vincent Valentine provide more experience at tackle.

He said it

“I think for me it’s not very much different. It’s really the same technique,” Peters told Bickley & Marotta of the switch back to a 3-4 defense. “I think for other guys it’s probably more of an effect, especially outside rushers, kind of guys like Chandler … As far as the switch, I think a lot of guys are really happy with it for whatever reason. And for a variety of reasons the 4-3 just didn’t work well last year.

“I think we went from being a pretty good defense, especially against the run, to being one of the worst defenses in the league. That’s not just on one person. I obviously have to bear some of that as well. We all do. It’s not just a coaching thing, it’s everybody. I’m looking forward to just starting fresh and just getting back to, especially run defense, the way we’ve done it since I’ve been here otherwise.”

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