Then and now: Jordan Phillips part of Cardinals’ (again) restacked D-line
The Arizona Cardinals believe they’ve plugged holes and built depth. On paper they look improved, though they’ve yet to hit the practice field due to the coronavirus.
They speak about flashes of offensive brilliance last year, the growth of quarterback Kyler Murray and a thinly manned defense’s improvements to end 2019 as reasons to be optimistic about 2020.
But the biggest reason for optimism is the upgraded roster. How different does this 2020 roster really look compared to the one that began the first training camp under head coach Kliff Kingsbury?
By position, here’s a then-and-now comparison of the roster last offseason next to the current 2020 Cardinals team based on our 2019 July preview series leading into 2019 training camp.
Projected 2019 starters
DT: Corey Peters, Rodney Gunter
DE: Darius Philon
DT: Vincent Valentine, Terrell McClain, Miles Brown
DE: Zach Allen, Robert Nkemdiche, Michael Dogbe, Immanuel Turner
Biggest storyline: Will Darius Philon and Rodney Gunter reach another level?
X-factor: Robert Nkemdiche enters a contract year after team does not pick up fifth-year option
DT: Corey Peters
DE: Jordan Phillips, Jonathan Bullard
DT: Leki Fotu, Rashard Lawrence, Trevon Coley, Miles Brown
DE: Zach Allen, Michael Dogbe
It feels like eons ago that the Cardinals were going to lean heavily on Darius Philon and Robert Nkemdiche to get them through 2019. That’s because the duo only made it into the preseason and training camp, respectively, before Arizona moved on from them.
Just as camp began, Nkemdiche was released heading into a contract season for being out of shape. Philon, an offseason free agent signing, was arrested on assault charges and promptly let go after the first preseason game. So the Cardinals had a merry-go-round of faces around Corey Peters and Rodney Gunter last year, be it due to injuries or the coaching staff just searching for production.
With Gunter walking in free agency, Cardinals took another risk this offseason by offering a $30 million contract over three years to Jordan Phillips. He liked the opportunity to play the majority of snaps in Arizona and wanted to work under first-year defensive line coach Brentson Buckner, who returns to Arizona after a prior stint in the desert.
In his fifth season, Phillips broke out last year with the Buffalo Bills, tallying 9.5 sacks with his 6-foot-6, 341-pound frame. He’ll have to be healthy and productive to be worth the big payday.
More generally, his addition and that of draftees Leki Fotu and Rashard Lawrence give Arizona a youthful — and girthy — boost to a room that had little depth a year back.
The defensive line has enough returning players to feel good about improvement. Drafting two tackles who could produce right away has a lot to do with that.
The wonder is which player can solidify himself as the third starter. Jonathan Bullard was healthy for only nine games in 2019 but was steady when he played. Second-year pro Zach Allen maybe found himself in over his head after being forced into immediate action once Philon and Nkemdiche were off the roster. He’s coming off a season-ending neck injury.
Fotu is the prospect whose athleticism could push him into the conversation to be an immediate-impact player, and Lawrence brings some steadiness after being groomed by Ed Ogeron at LSU.
They all could be options to command a number of snaps alongside Peters and Phillips. Cardinals general manager Steve Keim needs at least one of them to hit as a starting-caliber player this season.