This week it’s time to discuss the Cardinals’ defensive personnel per position groups.
As we know, the Cardinals are switching back to 34 base defense this year.
Why the switch?
The 34 base defense is widely accepted as a stronger run defense than the 43. In 2018, the Cardinals were pitiful at stopping the run. The irony is that DTs Corey Peters and Rodney Gunter graded out (per PFF) as the 4th and 5th best run stoppers in the NFC West. However, the Cardinals’ linebackers and edges were soft. Inside holes weren’t being plugged quickly enough (thanks in part to Ts, Gs and Cs getting to the second level with greater regularity) and opposing teams seemed to be able to break the Cardinals’ undisciplined edge contain at will.
The 34 should better address those issues.
1—-primarily because, the 3 middle linemen can line up in gaps so as to occupy all 5 of the offensive linemen on the snap—-which should make it much more difficult for the offensive linemen to block the linebackers. 34 teams aim to do all they can to “keep their LBers clean.”
2—-because the 34 OLB set the edges, their number one job in run support is to “establish and maintain contain.” In other words, what the edge OLBs want to do is turn all runners back inside to where the pursuit is.
Technique Numbers: (34 Terminology)
The legendary Bear Bryant devised a number system for his defensive tackles and ends—-and it has to do with where each tackle and end line up.
0 technique—-NT lined up directly over the center.
1 technique—-NT lined up in the C/G gap.
2 technique—-DT lined up directly over the guard.
3 technique—-34 DE lined up in the G/T gap.
4 technique—-34 DE lined up directly over the tackle.
5 technique—-34 DE lined up in the T/TE gap
6 technique—-34 DE or 34 OLB lined up directly over the TE.
7 technique—-34 DE shaded to the inside shoulder of the TE (Bryant called it this despite the illogical number sequence—-and no one has ever changed it—-out of respect).
9 technique—-OLB lined up to the outside shoulder of the TE (or last OL on the line)
34 Nose Tackles—-primarily used in a 0 or 1 technique.
Traditional NTs are thick, 300 plus pound space eaters who can anchor down on a C/G double team.
Unconventional NTs are smaller, quick-twitch gap penetrators.
The Cardinals currently have 2 traditional type NTs on their roster in Corey Peters (6-3, 305, 30, 9th season, 69.5 2018 PFF) and Vincent Valentine (6-3, 315, 24, 4, 65.9 PFF).
In Calais Campbell’s absence the past two years, Corey Peters has stepped up and has become the team’s best interior run stopper and leader. Peters is versatile in the 34. He can play 34 NT and 34 DE. This past season has registered 50 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
Valentine spent most of 2018 on the practice squad, but was promoted to the 53 man roster late in the season and had one tackle. With the Patriots in 2016, Valentine had 18 tackles and 1 sack.
The Cardinals have a quick 1 technique NT in Pasoni Tasini (6-3, 307, 25, 2, 68.6 PFF) who is effective in short yardage and goal line situations.
The Cardinals will add a NT or two to the mix in free agency and/or the draft.
They would like to re-sign Rodney Gunter (6-5, 305, 27, 5, 70.1 PFF) who earned the top PFF grade on the interior defensive line in 2018 vis-a-vis his 44 tackles and 4.5 sacks.
Gunter has 34 versatility and, like Corey Peters, can play both NT and DE.
What’s especially attractive about Gunter is that he is emerging as an inside pass rusher.
My guess is that his market value is between $5-6M a year. The free agent DT class is deep, as so is the 2019 draft pool.
34 Defensive Ends: primarily used as 3,4,5 techniques.
The Cardinals currently lack depth here, particularly because Gunter is a free agent and Robert Nkemdiche (6-4, 296, 24, 4, 59.5 PFF) won’t likely be available until week 7 of the season due to his ACL rehab. Nkemdiche was virtually unstoppable in LA versus the Chargers, but remains injury prone and highly inconsistent.
The Cardinals had high hopes for Olsen Pierre (6-4, 293, 27, 3, 45.4 PFF) coming off a 30 tackle, 5.5 sack season in 2017. However, Pierre was hampered by injuries and perhaps the switch to the 43. He finished the 2018 season with a mere 12 tackles and 0 sacks.
This is a big year for Pierre, if he ever wants to warrant a nice payday on a multi-year deal.
In moving back to the 34 base defense, the Cardinals have two free agents and one roster player who may fit the mold as 34 DE tweeners—-ones who can be a part of the base 34 rotation and the 4 man rush rotation.
Benson Mayowa (6-3, 265, 27, 7, 73.3 PFF) was the most pleasant surprise free agent signing on the front seven last year. He had 38 tackles, 4 sacks, 11 tackles for loss and 1 forced fumble. Mayowa was particularly aggressive and effective in stopping the run. He is a free agent who may be worth holding on to, thanks to his versatility and stength at the point of attack.
Zach Moore (6-6, 275, 28, 4, 57.2 PFF) had 14 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 4 tackles for loss. He too was a nice pickup and is now a free agent who shouldn’t command much more than the veteran minimum.
Cameron Malveaux (6-5, 265, 24, 2, 56.0 PFF), a late season pickup from the Dolphins’ practice squad, is on the roster and had 4 tackles, 1 sack and 1 tackle for loss. Malveaux looks the part. He is big, physical and can convert speed to power.
The Cardinals had a good deal of success converting Frostee Rucker to 34 DE, thus they might feel inclined to try to do the same with Mayowa or Moore.
The Top Dogs in Free Agency:
Grady Jarrett (ATL)
Ndamukong Suh (LAR)
Sheldon Richardson (SEA)
Muhammed Wilkerson (GB)
Obviously, the Cardinals would love to get their hands on Grady Jarrett to continue their run at former Falcons. But, Jarrett is likely to be tagged.
Suh, Richardson and Wilkerson would probably be out of the Cardinals’ price range.
Mid-Tier Free Agents:
Margus Hunt (Colts)
Brent Urban (Ravens)
Henry Anderson (Jets)
Malcolm Brown (Patriots)
Look for the Cardinals to make a run at one of these four players. At 6-8, 298 pounds, Margus Hunt could be a nice fit in Calais Campbell’s old role. He had 30 tackles, 5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss in 2018 and carried a 71.4 PFF grade.
There is a player like Hunt in the draft—-Anthony Nelson (6-7, 271, Iowa)—-he had 45 tackles and 9.5 sack for the Hawkeyes in 2018. He might be on the board at the top of Round 3.
The Broncos may be considering trading or releasing 34 DE Derek Wolfe (6-5, 285, 28, 8). Wolfe is a productive 3 and 5 technique run stuffer who can get pressure on the QB. It could pay dividends to have his leadership in the middle of Vance Joseph’s defense.
Star Studded 34 DE Draft Prospects:
Quinnen Williams (Alabama)
Rashan Gary (Michigan)
Christian Wilkins (Clemson)
Jeffrey Simmons (Mississippi St.)* ACL (tough break)
Dexter Lawrence (Clemson)
Zach Allen (Boston College)
Dre’Mont Jones (Ohio St.)
The three here that I like the most are Quinnen Williams, Christian Wilkins and Zach Allen. All three are turbo motored, highly productive, alpha type leaders who make everyone around them better.
Wilkins and Allen have been mainstays for the past few years—-and amassed amazingly similar career stats:
For Wilkins’ career he had 192 tackles, 40.5 tackles for loss, 16 sacks and 15 pass blocks.
For Allen’s career he had 199 tackles, 40.5 tackles for loss, 16.5 sacks and 14 pass blocks, plus 2 interceptions.
Quinnen Williams is naturally explosive and is well versed in rip and swim moves. His talent is undeniable. In the SEC Championship game versus Georgia he was unstoppable (8 tackles, 1 sack), but his production in the two playoff games versus Oklahoma and Clemson was disappointing (5 tackles and 0 sacks combined).
For Williams’ career he had 91 tackles, 26.0 tackles for loss and 10 sacks—in two years.
In round one it would be hard for me to pick between Williams and Wilkins. After watching a number of their game tapes, I was enamored with Williams’ flash explosions and with Wilkins’ snap to snap excellence and high football IQ.
This is why trading down from #1 makes a degree of sense to me—-if the aim is to draft Williams or Wilkins.
Because, adding another 2nd round pick would enable the Cardinals to draft one of the top offensive lineman AND one of the top WRs.
We should have a better sense of what the Cardinals intend to do with the #1 pick after free agency—-much will depend on what free agent DEs and DTs the Cardinals sign—-and at the type of contracts, investment-wise.
If 34 OLB/ 4 man rush DE Nick Bosa is the Cardinals’ top choice—-then it would behoove the Cardinals to sign 2 34 DEs and 1 NT. And, of course, not invest heavily in a free agent 34 OLB.