Our final postional breakdown on the defensive side of the ball brings us to the Arizona Cardinals defensive tackles (previous breakdowns have included defensive ends, outside linebacker, inside linebackers, corners and safeties). As we pointed out with the defensive ends, it's hard to differentiate between some of the ends and tackles because of the 'hybrid' defense that Clancy Pendergast employed but we'll try to keep things simple. We're basically treating defensive tackles as if they were nose tackles and guys like Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell were listed with the ends.
Age and 2008 Stats: 34 years old (6/22/74) - 20 tackles, 1 sack
Contract Status: Signed through 2009
2008 Analysis: We expected almost nothing from Robinson when he was signed and we said as much (here and here) during training camp, but he ended up being one of the biggest and best surprises of the 2008 Cardinals. With Watson slowed his his knee injury and Branch completely failing, Robinson took the reins as a starter and never relinquished the job. He didn't finish with a flashing stat line but he did exactly what a nose tackle is supposed to do, hold the point of attack and consume blockers so the linebackers can roam free.
2009 Outlook: Robinson will certainly be around in 2009 but it'll be interesting to see how he fits into the new 3-4 defense (assuming that they switch). He doesn't have the size (6'4 304) to be a true nose tackle but he could certainly play defensive end. As long as Watson stays away from treadmills in the offseason, you'd have to assume that he'd slide into the starters role, but Robinson's a crafty veteran who will command some playing time.
Age and 2008 Stats: 25 years old (9/24/83) - 20 tackles, 1 sack
Contract Status: Restricted free agent
2008 Analysis: It took longer than expected for Watson to return from a freak treadmill accident that left him with a broken kneecap, in fact he didn't start a single game in 2008 until the Super Bowl. It was a disappointing year as a whole but as he started to get healthy and in shape, he started to show the flashes that have some believing that he can be very good nose tackle. He was at his best in the playoffs when the defense started using a four man line and his playing time increased and he's a big reason why they were so successful against the run.
2009 Outlook: The upcoming season will be a big season for Watson. He'll be in a contract year and a solid season could set him up for a decent pay day. He should enter camp as the unquestioned starter and the 3-4 defense should compliment his skill set very well. His size (6'3 332) makes him the perfect size to anchor the middle of the defense and command double teams on every single play. 2009 could be big breakout year for the third year pro.
Age and 2008 Stats: 24 years old (12/29/84) - 6 tackles
Contract Status: Signed through 2010
2008 Analysis: For every great surprise (Robinson), there is normally a massive disappointment and for the 2008 Cardinals it was Alan Branch (although Eric Green may have something to say about that). Entering camp, with Watson hobbled, it was assumed by just about everyone that Branch would claim the starting job and would send Watson to the bench. By the end of camp though, Whiz was calling Branch a 'flickering light' and it was fairly obvious that he was headed for miserable season. He was only active for four games, one of which was the season finale, and didn't dress for a single playoff game.
2009 Outlook: It's almost unconcievable now to think that the Cardinals gave up their second and fourth round pick to move up five spots to select Branch just two years ago. Whisenhunt might never admit it publicly but the upcoming season could be Branch's last chance to prove he's an NFL player. He's got all the physical tools but so far through two seasons he's completely lived up to his draft profile as a classic underachiever. When he wants to play he's practically unstoppable at times, but most of time he looks content just standing around and colllecting a paycheck.
Overview and Needs: If the Cardainals do in fact switch to a 3-4 defense, Watson and Branch will be critical to the overall success of the Cardinals. Watson provides them with a solid starter, as long as he can stay healthy, but Branch is still very much a question mark. Robinson will probably still play some nose this season, but I wouldn't be surprised if he's on the outside more often. Whether or not the team targets a big nose tackle in the draft could tell us everything we need to know about Branch. There aren't many free agents on the market that can play a true nose, but here are some names for those who are interested:
Albert Haynesworth - He's simply a best and could play in any scheme but to even call that a pipe dream would be overestimating the Cardinals chances.
Colin Cole - If the Cardinals are looking for a low-ball free agent to bring in and push Branch, Cole might be their guy. He's young enough (28) and is massive (6'1 330), but he's never broken through as a starter in five seasons with the Packers. He did play in every game last year though and managed 30 tackles and half a sack.
- Shaun Cody - Cody's another so-so free agent who could benefit from a switch to the 3-4. He's got decent size (6'4 310) and he's young (26). In four seasons with the Lions he hasn't been able to crack the lineup as a regular starter though.
There you have it, there aren't many options on the free agent market so if the Cardinals are looking for an upgrade, they'll probably have to draft a kid. Do you think the nose is a position of strength or need? Is Watson truly ready for a breakout season and could the Cardinals cut Branch before the season?