Today's look at the nose tackle position will conclude our look at the defensive side of the ball for the Arizona Cardinals (check out previous stories on the safeties, corner backs, inside linebackers, outside linebackers and defensive ends). As our luck would have it, the nose tackle spot in the only position on the defensive side of the ball in which the starter isn't set in stone given the uncertainty with Gabe Watson's knee. We all know that he had a second "clean up" surgery earlier in the off season and hopefully this surgery will allow him to play without pain (something he couldn't do last year). Outside of Watson's knee there are the other normal faces competing for roster spots and playing time but there is a new face who could push his way into the roster.
Gabe Watson, Bryan Robinson
On the Bubble
Alan Branch, Rodney Leisle
If the Cardinals had to play a game today (as much as we pray, it's just not going to happen), Bryan Robinson would probably line up at nose tackle but I suspect the team would much rather have Watson as their starter. That's not a knock on Robinson but Watson has the size and ability to be a 'true nose' while Robinson is more suited to be a stellar backup all over the defensive line. I'd imagine that Watson, who could be an unrestricted free agent next off season, will do everything in his power to be healthy and have a big season considering that he should be in line for a significant payday. As for Branch and Leisle, we'll address them after the jump but for the record, neither of them are eligible for the practice squad.
Alan Branch: Branch's status as a "bubble" guy might be debatable but there's no doubt that the team is tired of him showing up overweight and under-motivated. Conflicting reports have come out this off season with some reporting that his attendance at off season workouts have been better than in year's past while others have written that Branch still showed up weighing more than the franchise would have liked. Regardless of where Branch stands today, the guy has the potential to be a disruptive force wherever he plays but he'll have to get his head wrapped around the physical demands of being a professional football player. On a somewhat side note, there have been some rumors that the staff has tried moving Branch to the less taxing position of defensive end where his size would be an advantage. If that's true, it might be a last gasp effort to get something out of a guy that the franchise essentially used two draft picks to select.
Rodney Leisle: Leisle (6'3, 315) is a complete wild card and I wouldn't be surprised if no one reading this had ever seen him play a single down of NFL football. He hasn't played in the NFL since 2006 but he was a 5th round draft pick of the Saints in 2004. He played in 17 games over his first three seasons before being cut in the training camp of 2007. He resurfaced with the Giants during their training camp last year but a rib injury ended his season before it even got started. He spent some time in Canadian football with the Saskatchewan Roughriders during their 2008 season. At best Leisle is trying to push Branch off the roster, but I'd have to think that he'll have to significantly better to make that happen.
The strength of his unit depends solely on the health of Gabe Watson. If he recovers fully from his knee injury, this unit is strong enough to solidify the middle of a 3-4 defense that's trying to climb into the top 10 of the NFL. If he struggles for another season and the Cardinals are forced to wade through another nose tackle by commitee season with Robinson leading the way, it's possible that the middle of this defense will continue to be a weak spot. Given the uncertainty of Watson's health, it's a virtual lock for the Cardinals to carry three (but not four) nose tackles so a Branch versus Leisle battle could heat up during the preseason. How do you feel about the depth at nose tackle? Are you confident that Watson returns to health and what confidence do you have in Branch?