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Arizona Cardinals Camp Preview: Defensive Line

Who is fighting for the last spot or spots in the front seven for the Arizona Cardinals? A fan favorite might be the one who gets released.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In recent years, the defensive line has been a considerable strength for the Arizona Cardinals, with big names and solid veteran players but also a tremendous amount of depth.  Such depth has allowed the team to outlast key injuries on the line over the past few years (Darnell Dockett, Corey Peters come to mind) while still remaining a top-tier unit.

After Peters went down in practice last year, seemingly before he'd even had a chance to hit the field, 4th round rookie Rodney Gunter took over.

He stabilized the nose tackle position and had a tremendous rookie season for the Cardinals, making their choice for the defensive line seemingly more complicated with Peters coming back, and with the team drafting Nkemdiche.

...Or did it?

As James Bettcher, the Cardinals defensive coordinator, uses a hybrid scheme with a rotation of players, I'd argue that what Gunter's explosion last year alongside the drafting of Nkemdiche does is bring more versatility to the Cardinals with an even deeper, more talented team.

But those additions do have a price: you can't keep everybody on the D-Line.  Someone has to be the odd man out.

The current starters on the defensive line, going from last year, who are considered locks are: Calais Campbell, Frostee Rucker and Corey Peters.  The young drafted players who would also be locks on the defensive line include highly-touted draft pick Robert Nkemdiche and Rodney Gunter.  Cory Redding retired in the offseason.  Even so, that's already a pretty stacked defensive line considering that the Cardinals only kept seven DL on the roster last year, meaning two spots are open unless they choose to cut from another position.

The players who are fighting for those spots are:

Ed Stinson

Josh Mauro

Red Bryant

Xavier Williams

Olsen Pierre

Interestingly enough, given the flexible nature of Bettcher's defense and the versatility of most of the Cardinals' defensive linemen, all of the players on the defensive line are listed as defensive tackles.

It might have been a bit of a surprise to some fans when, at the start of 2015, Campbell was listed as moving from a Defensive End position to the Defensive Tackle spot, but in reality, he'd already been playing the position for a while.

NT Xavier Williams is the only player of the bunch who is actually listed as a nose tackle.  This could potentially be very good for him, or it could spell him out as a potential cut, as both Peters and Gunter (and even Nkemdiche) have the positional flexibility to play the nose.

Arians loves the ability to play multiple positions, as evidenced by Bradley Sowell's long-time spent on the roster as a swing-tackle vs. his comments about Bobby Massie as a "right tackle only".  Given that the team didn't re-sign Massie and drafted a first-round rookie tackle, who played left tackle in college, it's possible that Williams' limitation to nose might work against him.  He's also still practice-squad eligible under the new rules.

DT Josh Mauro is one of those players with that flexibility.  A waiver-claim from the Steelers during the injury-riddled 2014 regular season, he turned out to be a nice surprise for the Cardinals, starting some games and showing the flexibility to play outside linebacker standing up or play with his hand in the dirt.  (For all you draftniks out there, this flexibility is a reason why Stanford defensive linemen such as Trent Murphy and Henry Anderson have stuck around and played well in the NFL).  But while his adaptability is important, Mauro faces a crowded room, and isn't a draft pick, unlike fellow defensive tackle Ed Stinson, who is in a similar predicament, except he's more of a 5-technique, although he did show some pass-rush ability in addition to his run-stopping.

The other veteran in the room of these young players is Red Bryant, who endeared himself to many with when he was spotlighted in "All Or Nothing" after coming off of his couch to play a major role in helping the Cardinals get past injuries to Cory Redding and Frostee Rucker.  His hard work & ability was praised by Arians on the show and in press conferences, but he is 32 years old.  The team values veteran leadership but in a crowded room with two young guys in Nkemdiche and Gunter needing playing time, he might be the odd man out.

The other player is 6'5, 293 lb. Olsen Pierre, who has his draft profile here and is a longshot to make the team, as his strengths indicate 2-gapping and run-stuffing, which is basically the equivalent of what Ed Stinson already provides and Stinson is a veteran.  He's a practice squad option if he impresses but he'll have a hard fight to go to get to that point.

My guess at the defensive lineman room is below, as of now, it's Red Bryant who I think will end up released by the team.

Calais Campbell
Frostee Rucker
Corey Peters
Rodney Gunter
Robert Nkemdiche
Ed Stinson
Josh Mauro

Practice Squad: 
Xavier Williams (but think another team could claim him)

Any thoughts on the defensive line heading into camp, sound off in the comments!

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