GLENDALE, Ariz. — Between head coach Bruce Arians and assistant Tom Pratt, there’s not much the two haven’t seen in the NFL. And we’re talking about more than 60 years of combined experience.
So, when they each say, separately, the Arizona Cardinals’ defensive line room is the deepest they’ve ever come across, we should probably take them at their word.
The roster lists 10 defensive linemen, seven of whom are currently healthy with Frostee Rucker (foot), Corey Peters (plantar fasciitis) and first-round draft pick Robert Nkemdiche (ankle) nursing injuries. Rucker is on the physically unable to perform list.
How many of those 10 players make the final 53-man roster may be the most difficult question answered in training camp and preseason.
“That’s where the big competition is. Whether we keep eight, nine or ten linemen will depend on how they perform versus a fourth tight end, a fifth running back or sixth wide receiver,” Arians said. “It’s going to be really hard, really hard, because the young kids are doing extremely well also. Everybody that’s over there right now could make a roster.
“This is by far the deepest defensive line group I’ve ever had. It’s hellacious competition in that room.”
Counting the Cardinals, Arians’ resume lists six different NFL teams he’s been a part of in one capacity or another, dating back to 1989.
For Pratt, meanwhile, the 2016 season will be his 38th in the league. Only Tennessee’s Dick LeBeau (44th season) has more experience among active NFL coaches.
“Normally with teams who are in training camp like this,” said Pratt, who owns the distinction of coaching in the NFL in six different decades, “if we’ve got 10 players, we got two or three that we know are going to be gone. That’s it. I mean, it’s just cut-and-dry. They’re fillers, but with this group, there’s not a filler in this group. We could line up and play with any one of these guys if the season started tomorrow.”
Right now in camp, Calais Campbell, Xavier Williams and Ed Stinson are running with the first-team defense. Red Bryant, Rodney Gunter, Josh Mauro and Pierre Olsen are part of the second and sometimes third wave of players along the defensive line, depending on how coordinator James Bettcher decides to counter the offense, given down and distance.
The rotation of players, according to Pratt, may reduce the number of snaps, perhaps by as much as half, they see in game. The benefit is an obvious one: players stay fresh, not only for that particular game but the season as well.
“The rotation is huge. We got to keep a rotation,” Campbell said. “That’s going to be a big part of our defense going forward is being able to send just layers and layers of people. We just rotate. One wave comes in and dominates for two series. Another wave comes in and dominates. We just take turns going back-and-forth. That’s really going to help us going forward in the playoffs and being fresh because the season is long and you put a lot of reps in your body. It’s a grind, so the more you can have guys that can step in and play, the more you keep everybody fresh and the freshest teams at the end of the year usually play the best.”
Again, the question is how many guys will the Cardinals be able to hang on to once the season begins. Certainly 10, as Arians mentioned as a possibility, seems to be a long shot; nine would seem to be unlikely as well.
Last season, the Cardinals kept seven with five, and sometimes six, dressing on game day.
“It’ll play out how it’s supposed to play out,” Bryant said. “It’s just a testament to the GM and the personnel staff to be able to get that type of talent, and that’s what you need at the end of the day if you’re trying to win a championship. Whatever they need me to do, that’s what I’ll do. Even if it don’t work out for me, this is still a great team. It’s just a privilege to be around a good group of men. Any way I can help, that’s what I’ll do.”
Though it’s rarely discussed in the locker room, the players are well aware of the team’s depth at defensive line and the numbers game that’s ahead.
“I’d hate to be the decision-makers when it comes down to that because I think that, for the first time in my career, I’m in a room where I’m confident in any guy in our room as far as needing to play. I think that’s kind of rare,” Peters said. “We’ve got a really good room, really deep room, a good mix of older guys and younger guys.”
Added Campbell, “I feel for the guys upstairs because they’re going to have some tough decisions on their hands. These guys are great players. All these guys have worked really hard and come to camp with the right mindset. Even for the guys who do end up not being with us going forward, they’re going end up somewhere because we just have so much talent.”