Cardinals roster questions, wild cards: Which defensive linemen separate from rest of pack?
Jul 19, 2023, 11:35 AM | Updated: 3:55 pm
The Arizona Cardinals look a whole lot different than they did this time a year ago.
And with a reset in culture, coaching staff and front office comes a reset in the roster.
Each position group has undergone change this offseason, from quarterback to special teams specialists.
There’s still plenty of time for personnel tweaks between now and training camp next month. But until then, let’s take a deeper dive into how the Cardinals’ roster is currently constructed.
After taking a look at the offense, it’s time to dive into the defense beginning with the line.
The Arizona Cardinals’ big roster questions: DL
1. Who separates themselves from the rest of the pack?
The defensive line is among the position groups with the most questions entering 2023, especially following the departures of Arizona’s top two sack-getters in Zach Allen (6.5) and J.J. Watt (12.5). Outside of a trio of returners, the line (and the coaching staff around it) has been retooled with new faces, young and old. The base defense is even up in the air, though it appears to be trending toward a 4-3 formation.
Three veteran newcomers to watch are Carlos Watkins, Kevin Strong and L.J. Collier.
Collier is the most intriguing option of the bunch given his first-round price tag in 2019.
Spending his first four seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, Collier has yet to play up to his draft position, recording just three sacks to go along with 40 tackles, six for losses, five passes defensed and 13 QB hits in 45 games played.
Injuries have played a big part in Collier’s career, having missed five games in 2019 and nine this past season. He was also inactive for six games in 2021, though that was largely due to him losing his spot on the roster to former Cardinal Robert Nkemdiche, who left a lot to be desired during his Arizona tenure.
Collier has just one full season of work (2020) through four years, registering three sacks, 22 tackles, four for losses, two passes defensed and seven QB hits in 16 games played. It was by far his best season as a pro.
Watkins on the other hand has the most experience of the bunch, appearing in 69 games (36 starts) across six NFL seasons.
He’s coming off a 12-game effort in 2022, tallying 26 tackles, two for losses, and a forced fumble.
Strong, however, saw the most work a year prior, playing in 16 games (one start).
They all should get a legit shot at earning meaningful reps alongside returners Leki Fotu, Jonathan Ledbetter and Rashard Lawrence.
2. Can Rashard Lawrence cure his availability issues?
Fotu and Ledbetter took a step forward last season. Lawrence, though, was stuck watching from the sideline for most of the year.
In what was yet another injury-riddled campaign for Lawrence in 2022, the lineman appeared in just five games due to hand and calf issues. Since entering the league as a 2020 fourth-rounder, Lawrence has registered no more than 35% of available defensive snaps and has played in 25 total games (13 starts).
Last year was a tough pill to swallow for Lawrence, who had set new career highs in tackles for loss (three) and forced fumbles (one) before the team placed him on injured reserve with the calf issue.
It’s since poured over into this offseason, too, with Lawrence a nonparticipant for organized team activities and minicamp.
Lawrence is very much in the mix to earn starting reps if healthy. Unfortunately for the lineman, that is a hefty if.
The wild Card
One name not yet mentioned in this space that could very well be a darkhorse candidate for a meaningful role is 2023 sixth-round draft pick Dante Stills.
The final pick of Arizona’s 2023 draft class, Stills made a name for himself across five seasons at West Virginia. He set a school record in games played (59), ranking No. 1 in career tackles for loss (52.5) and No. 4 in sacks (23.5).
For his efforts, Stills was honored with a pair of All-Big 12 First Team nods (2021-22) in addition to two second-team awards (2019-20).
The biggest factors for the 6-foot-4, 280-pounder revolve around two things: Getting the playbook down pat and bulking up for the NFL workload.
Roles throughout the line are there for the taking. And at 23 years old and with five years of college experience, Stills brings polished game to the table.