Cardinals 2021 lookahead: Only sure thing on D-line are the young guys
With the Arizona Cardinals missing out on the playoffs having finished 8-8 this year, we’re leaping ahead to — we hope — a relatively standard offseason.
In November, the NFL mapped out a 2021 offseason that officially begins on March 17, when free agents can be signed. Then comes the NFL Draft scheduled for April 29 through May 1.
The Cardinals have big roster decisions to make across the board. By looking back at last year, we’re taking a look — by position group — at the offseason personnel decisions ahead for Arizona general manager Steve Keim.
After our first edition touched on quarterback Kyler Murray and his backups, let’s take it to the other side of the ball with a developing defensive line room.
Players under contract
DT Jordan Phillips ($12,000,000)
DE Zach Allen ($1,171,026)
DT Leki Fotu ($973,368)
DT Rashard Lawrence ($951,021)
NT Corey Peters (unrestricted)
NT Domata Peko
DL Angelo Blackson
DE Josh Mauro
The good news
It was trial by fire in 2020 for a group of young Cardinals defensive linemen, and going into a year in which other position groups look like they’ll be priorities, next season will present another opportunity for them to earn playing time.
Maybe the most compelling storyline from this past year was the late-season rise of defensive end Zach Allen, who had two injury reserve stints over his first two seasons. Over his last four games, Allen put together an 11-tackle game against the Philadelphia Eagles, had a duo of four-hurry games against the New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams, and flashed his knack for batting down balls at the line with three passes defensed.
Alongside Allen, rookies Leki Fotu and Rashard Lawrence had their share of woes in limited roles — but they flashed at times.
Fotu, learning a new position having been drafted out of Utah as more of a nose tackle, gained traction late. His nimbleness for being a large human and pure power popped in the final four weeks of the year, where he recorded three quarterback hits, his first and only sack, plus a tackle for loss.
Lawrence came out of a coronavirus-shortened training camp earning praise for his maturity and was earning more snaps as the season went on. A calf injury stalled his progress, but it’s a good bet he is in line for a bump in playing time heading into next season.
Those three players will have their chances to play next year. Can they take advantage?
Captain Corey Peters enters free agency coming off a season-ending knee injury and turns 33 this offseason.
He played in nine games with 10 total pressures from the interior, and that’s impressive considering, if Peters were healthy, he would have challenged ends Angelo Blackson (19) and Allen (18) for the lead among Arizona’s interior linemen.
Will the Cardinals be able to retain one of the locker room leaders?
Blackson is a free agent after joining Arizona just before the season began. He made an immediate impact and was the lone player on the D-line who made it through the enter regular season without a major injury.
Blackson, Domata Peko and Josh Mauro all fell into the same bucket of being heady and trusted enough to plug in as injuries struck. They could be options to return on smaller deals.
But after Peters, it’s Jordan Phillips who lands here as a question mark.
His backloaded contract kicks in at $12 million in 2021 after he spent half of his first year in Arizona struggling through a hamstring injury.
Phillips posted two sacks in the first three weeks of the year and also forced two fumbles on the season. He’s a massive force as a pass-rusher, but expectations are high because of the pay coming his way over the next several years.
In nine games, Phillips played in more than 50% of the Cardinals’ snaps just twice. Phillips said before the year he could be on the field more than that — his former Buffalo Bills team also felt it necessary to play him in a limited role — and he’ll have to prove to defensive coordinator Vance Joseph that he deserves a bigger role during training camp.