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Cardinals Defensive Line Outlook: Finding starters opposite Corey Peters

Huge expectations are in store for second-year defensive tackle Zach Allen

Detroit Lions v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Cardinals’ defensive line might be the most concerning position on the defense. Against the run, they finished 24th in the NFL last season and the line had a combined seven sacks. Their unit is led by 31-year-old nose tackle Corey Peters, who remains the most consistent run defender on the team. He finished the 2019 season with 38 tackles and 2.5 sacks.

After him, they are counting on last year’s third-round pick Zach Allen to start as the left side defensive tackle. He had a disappointing rookie year, suffering a season-ending neck injury in week four. Allen finished the year with only eight tackles through 144 snaps.

Even then, expectations remain very high for the second-year defensive tackle. The Cardinals had him as a top-25 prospect on their draft board for a reason and are hoping for big improvements from the Boston College standout.

The return of Brentson Buckner as the Cardinals’ defensive line coach certainly helps. He helped the Raiders jump from last in the NFL in sacks (13) in 2018 to 24th (32) last season. Their run defense also made a significant improvement from being 30th in 2018 to eighth in 2019. He was one of the biggest reasons why the Cardinals had so much success from 2013 to 2017.

Seventh-round pick Michael Dogbe, Miles Brown, and Lyndon Johnson are the only other defensive lineman under contract for the Cardinals through 2020. Dogbe had some good moments in the preseason but was a healthy scratch for most of the year. He had five tackles, one tackle for loss, and one QB hit through eight games. Brown was in and out of the roster but finished with four tackles. Johnson signed with the team on a futures contract.

With that said, they are still in search of a dominant starting defensive tackle that they have been missing since the departure of Calais Campbell in free agency a few seasons ago. Rodney Gunter is an impending free agent that led the Cardinals’ defensive lineman in sacks (3). His 2019 statistics also include 31 tackles, nine tackles for loss, and 10 QB hits. His familiarity with Buckner and Vance Joseph’s defense makes him a player likely to be re-signed.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Zach Kerr and Jonathan Bullard were quality backup defensive lineman for the Cardinals last season but are impending free agents as well. Cardinals will be interested in re-signing them but not before letting them test the market. Clinton McDonald and Caraun Reid will not be back.

Super Bowl LIV - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Cardinals can immediately improve their defensive line by trading for Chiefs’ DT Chris Jones or the Jaguars’ DT Calais Campbell. If they choose to upgrade the nose tackle position, SteelersJavon Hargrave and TexansD.J. Reader are good options. None of these players will come cheap but it is the price they have to pay for quality players.

If they choose to go bargain hunting, CowboysMaliek Collins or EaglesTimmy Jernigan would fit the bill. Derek Wolfe and Shelby Harris will get plenty of interest from the Cardinals.

Javon Kinlaw and Derrick Brown are the top defensive tackle prospects on the 2020 draft class. Day two prospects to consider are A.J. Epenesa, Ross Blacklock, Jordan Elliott, and Justin Madubuike.

If the Cardinals can improve their run defense and upgrade the pass rush up front, it will do wonders for the secondary which finished 31st last season.

Whatever the team decides to do, this position must be prioritized in either free agency or the draft. No more taking chances on inconsistent draft prospects like Robert Nkemdiche, or aging players like Terrell Suggs. If the Cardinals want to contend in 2020, they need to minimize their mistakes and get the most out of the money they spend.