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Cardinals free agency refresher: J.J. Watt changes D-line depth chart

San Francisco 49ers quarterback C.J. Beathard (3) looks to pass as Arizona Cardinals defensive end Zach Allen (94) defends during the first half of an NFL football game, Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

The National Football League’s new season officially begins on March 17.

NFL-wide, the Arizona Cardinals have the largest share of 2020 snaps taken by players who will enter free agency this offseason, according to OverTheCap.com. Forty-four percent of the team’s total snaps could be lost in free agency.

General manager Steve Keim will see what he can do to retain many of those players after an 8-8 season. But with spending limited due to a to-be-determined salary cap drop — plus teams expected to be shedding big contracts before free agency — there are many roster decisions to make on the fly.

Let’s refresh our memories of where the Cardinals stand by taking a look at each position group.

Defensive line

Players under contract (cap hit)

DT Jordan Phillips ($12,000,000)
DE J.J. Watt ($4,900,000)
DE Zach Allen ($1,171,026)
DT Leki Fotu ($973,368)
DT Rashard Lawrence ($951,021)

Free agents

NT Corey Peters
NT Domata Peko
DL Angelo Blackson
DE Josh Mauro

All salary data via Spotrac.com.

While little has changed for most of Arizona’s position groups since the 2020 season ended, the biggest move during this dead period changes things quite a bit.

Arizona signing J.J. Watt to a two-year deal last week not only adds a veteran voice and elite talent to the defensive line. It also knocks every other guy down a peg on the depth chart.

First and foremost, the role of last year’s pricy addition, Jordan Phillips, becomes an open question. The 6-foot-6, 341-pound lineman played 266 snaps over nine games, proving effective as a situational pass-rusher while grading out relatively poorly as a run stopper.

Phillips recorded 11 tackles and two sacks last year before a groin injury scuffed up any early season traction that he built during his first year with Arizona.

For the Houston Texans, Watt was relatively strong — and healthy — in 2020. The 6-foot-5, 288-pound veteran played more than 1,013 snaps, though Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph would hope to cut that down a bit this coming season.

Watt is a well-rounded producer against run or pass, but he can play alongside Phillips as a 3- or 5-technique.

In an ideal world, Phillips lives up to the $12 million cap hit he could carry and teams with Watt to boost the interior of the line.

From there, there are promising young players on rookie deals.

Defensive end Zach Allen now sits behind Watt after putting together a strong finish to 2020. In the final quarter of the season, Allen recorded an 11-tackle game, had a pair of four-hurry games and batted down three passes at the line.

His growth and the Watt addition might push surprise 2020 contributor Angelo Blackson out of the picture when it comes to the team’s needs.

That’s because fourth-round picks Leki Fotu (11 tackles, 4 for loss, 1 sack) and Rashard Lawrence (9 tackles) were reliable enough in their first seasons. With a semi-regular training camp and a full offseason, that duo should make a leap from a physical perspective.

That leads us to the middle of the defensive line, where the biggest question moving forward is who will be the starting nose tackle.

Captain Corey Peters is an impending free agent but at 33 years old will be coming off a torn patellar tendon suffered in November. He remained productive last year (15 tackles, two sacks, 15 QB pressures), but it’s unclear how much his injury could linger into 2021.

Lawrence had his ups and downs in 166 snaps as Peters’ backup, and the Cardinals ended up leaning on 36-year-old Domata Peko down the stretch of the year.

Arizona spent the last year converting Fotu to defensive end and asked him to lose weight after a college career playing nose tackle. It wouldn’t seem ideal — and maybe not possible — to switch his role following the Watt signing.

Joseph went to oddly configured defensive fronts often last year, whether it be using defensive ends alongside a bevy of linebackers to attack passing situations or no defensive linemen at all.

That’s to say the Cardinals will find ways to get their best players on the field, even if it’s in non-traditional groupings.

How Phillips, Allen and Fotu rework their niches alongside Watt will be the thing to follow. Whether Peters, a veteran voice in the locker room, returns will shape things as well.

For now, the depth and the options for the Cardinals along the D-line are good problems to have.


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