Last week we looked at the offensive depth chart and potential positional battles. The defensive side of the ball has far more question marks than the offense though. The Cardinals employed a 'hybrid 3-4' defense in 2007 and it should become a bigger part of the base defense in 2008. The big question though is what does the transition mean to the players that are currently here? Normally a team will go through a one or two year transition period in which they start adding players that fit the new scheme. The Cardinals seem to be doing that when you look at their free agent additions and draft picks. Their additions include, Clark Haggans former Titan defensive end, Travis LaBoy, Calais Campbell (2nd round) Kenny Iwebema (4th round), (6'4 267) and Chris Harrington (6th round). Here's how the front seven currently looks in a 3-4:
Defensive Line: The cornerstone of every successful 3-4 defense is a wide-bodied nose tackle who is stout against the run and can consume multiple blockers. The Cardinals have two young, promising guys who fit that role very well in 24 year old, Gabe Watson (6'3 332) and 23 year old, Alan Branch (6'5 332). With fire plugs like these two and a successful rotation, these two should be able to clog up the middle of the field. At defensive end the left side is a lock with Pro Bowler and former defensive tackle Darnell Dockett sliding over. He's young (26) and has the right size (6'4 285) and athleticism to excel on the outside (9 sacks in 2007). The other end should be in place this year with 26 year old, Antonio Smith (6'4 282). He's only on a one year deal though so the drafting of Campbell could signal that Smith needs use this season to raise his free agent value. They also have former Bengal Bryan Robinson (6'4 304). Robinson is a veteran player (33) that can play anywhere on the line and can be a solid member of the rotation, but will need limited snaps to be effective. The remainder of depth should come from rookies, Campbell and Iwebema.
Outside Line Backers: This group will be responsible for pressuring the quarterback and they again should have plenty of depth to keep everyone fresh. They have four guys with starting experience competing for two spots in Bertrand Berry (6' 264), Chike Okeafor (6'5 265), Clark Haggans (6'4 243), and Travis LaBoy (6'3 260). Berry's a very good player when he's healthy but he missed 21 games the past three seasons and he's in the final year of his current contract. At 32 years old and a $2 million dollar price tag, he'll have to prove he's healthy and can be productive in a switch from DE to OLB in order to make an impact on the team. Okeafor (32), another veteran DE who'll be moved to outside line backer, is a dynamic pass rusher who's averaged over 7.5 sacks the past six seasons, not counting 2007 when he missed the entire season due to an injury in preseason. Haggans is the only true outside linebacker of the bunch and yet another former Steeler on the roster. Haggans (31) has been a starter for the past four seasons and has averaged over 50 tackles and 6 sacks a season during that span. He's better when his snaps are limited so the depth around him will be key. Free agent signee, Travis LaBoy is the future of this group (26 years old) and another defensive end who'll be making a transition to outside linebacker. LaBoy had a a breakout season in 2007 when he recorded 6 sacks despite not starting a single game. Harrington will compete for a roster spot but could up on the practice squad so that he'll have a year to adjust to the position change.
Inside Line Backer: The starting inside linebackers are as close to set in stone as they can be in mid-May with Gerald Hayes (6'1 249) and Karlos Dansby (6'4 250). Hayes (27) is coming off his second solid season as a starter and despite not being a dynamic player, he could register his first 100 tackle season of his career in 2008. Dansby (26) is as close to a star as there is in this linebacking core. He's recorded over 20 sacks and over 300 tackles during his first four seasons and 2007 was his best year to date. The franchise tag kept him in Arizona for one more season, but make no mistake about it, he's playing for a pay day after the season. Behind them are veterans Monty Beisel (6'3 240) and Matt Stewart (6'3 239), both of whom are under 30 years old and have starting experience. Also keep an eye out for undrafted free agent signee Ali Highsmith. It was a surprise that he wasn't drafted but his non-stop motor should keep in the running for a roster spot.
Looking back at this front seven, I come to this conclusion: If the outside linebackers can assimilate their new positions, this unit can be really good. The defensive line should be able to stuff the run and they have some dynamic pass rushers to pressure the quarterback. Hayes and Dansby have the experience and ability to make plays all over field. If the foursome of Berry, Okeafor, Haggans, and LaBoy can put pressure on the quarterback and do a decent job in pass coverage, they'd go a long way to helping out a secondary that really struggled in 2007. Anyone else see this kind of potential or have I been drinking too much Red Kool-Aid?