Cardinals breakout candidates: Can DE Bullard thrive in prove-it year?

Jul 16, 2020, 11:22 AM | Updated: Jul 17, 2020, 7:19 am
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) is pressured by Arizona Cardinals defensive end Jonat...

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) is pressured by Arizona Cardinals defensive end Jonathan Bullard (90) after releasing the ball in the first half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. The Saints won 31-9. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

(AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Heading into the Arizona Cardinals’ expected start of training camp on July 28, let’s take a peek at the team’s potential breakout candidates — the guys who could come out of nowhere to give the team something surprising as we project their 2020 season.

The list, which we’re rolling out in no particular order, will include players yet to solidify themselves as NFL starters. While that is mostly made up of second-year pros, there are older vets included. We won’t touch on rookies because, well, they’ve yet to set expectations for themselves as pros.

Jonathan Bullard will be the oldest player to appear on this list of potential breakout players for the Cardinals. He’s by far the one with the most NFL game experience.

Arizona’s defensive end is 26 years old going on 27 and has 55 games under his belt. Most of those games came with the Chicago Bears, who selected him in the third round of the 2016 draft.

Why consider him in this series of breakout candidates?

For one, defensive linemen outside of the edge rusher category tend to enter the primes of their careers later than most other position groups. For Bullard specifically, it’s because he popped for instances last season, his first with Arizona. With that, he has a leg-up on the competition to earn a major role.

Corey Peters will start at nose, and Arizona spent big to put Jordan Phillips as a starting end, expecting him to provide both bulk and pass-rushing abilities. The rotation spot opposite Phillips remains a wide open competition.

The Cardinals drafted rookie tackles Leki Fotu and Rashard Lawrence in the fourth round this offseason, and they could theoretically play right away. End Zach Allen must rebound after an injury cut his rookie year short. But without in-person camps to this point, it’s Bullard who will enter upcoming camp — assuming it happens as scheduled — as a known commodity.

Bullard played in nine games, starting six. As a waiver-wire pickup just before Week 1, the percentages of snaps for the year are skewed as he didn’t play much in his Arizona debut. He missed Weeks 2 and 3 with a hamstring injury, Week 11 with a foot injury and in Week 13 played 21 snaps with a half-sack before a hamstring issue cropped up again. The lineman ended up on injured reserve after that.

When healthy and starting, he was regularly on the field more than 50% of the time.

So with all that, it was arguably his best year yet. Bullard compiled 22 tackles, 1.5 sacks and four tackles for loss. He posted a career-high seven QB hits playing in Vance Joseph’s 3-4 defense.

Overall, Bullard’s nine quarterback pressures in 309 defensive snaps, per Pro Football Reference, is a decent rate considering that starting end Rodney Gunter, who is now with the Jacksonville Jaguars, posted 13 in 602 snaps.

Those numbers, even if Bullard was healthy enough to play a full season, probably don’t scream above-average NFL starting defensive end. And yeah, it would be foolish to not worry about availability for a player who before joining the Cardinals wasn’t asked to hold up as a regular starter with the Bears.

Still, there’s always a chance Bullard can be a breakout star in his first year off his rookie deal.

Because of his resume and the limited offseason, it would be surprising if he wasn’t taking first-team snaps when training camp begins.

It says something that Arizona made him one of its free agent targets after the initial wave of big contracts were handed out. Joseph trusts him, he knows the system better than the rookies and he’s got plenty more experience than second-year pros Zach Allen and Michael Dogbe.

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Cardinals breakout candidates: Can DE Bullard thrive in prove-it year?