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2020 NFC West Defenses: Paper Grades

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

As Arizona Cardinals’ fans know, the success of the team will depend on a much improved defense in 2020. GM Steve Keim vowed to “fix the defense” this off-season, while doubling down on the team’s 2019 choice for DC, Vance Joseph.

On paper, let’s see where the Cardinals stand versus the rest of their division.

Key: 5—-Elite; 4—-Pro Bowl Potential; 3—-Solid; 4—-Developing


LDE: Zach Allen (2)——A’Shawn Robinson (3)—-Arik Armstead (4)——L.J. Collier (2)

LDT: Corey Peters (3)—Michael Brockers (3)—-Solomon Thomas (2)—-Jarran Reed (3)

RDT: Jordan Phillips (3)—Aaron Donald (5)——-D.J. Jones (2)——Poonah Ford (3)

RDE: Chandler Jones (5)—-Leonard Floyd (3)—Nick Bosa (4)——Bruce Irvin (3)

LOLB: Devon Kennard (3)—Samson Ebukam (3)—-Dee Ford (4)—-Shaquem Griffin (2)

MLB: Jordan Hicks (4)———Micah Kiser (2)——Fred Warner (4)——Bobby Wagner (5)

ROLB: De’V Campbell (3)—-Justin Lawler (2)—-Dre Greenlaw (3)—-K.J. Wright (4)

LCB: Patrick Peterson (4)—-Troy Hill (3)———Richard Sherman (4)—-Shaquill Griffin (4)

SS: Jalen Thompson (3)—-Taylor Rapp (3)—-Jacquiski Tartt (3)—-Bradley McDougald (3)

FS: Budda Baker (4)——John Johnson (3)——Jimmy Ward (4)——Quandre Diggs (4)

RCB: Robert Alford (3)—-Jalen Ramsey (4)—-A. Witherspoon (3)—-Tre Flowers (2)

NCB: Byron Murphy (2)—-David Lang (3)—-K’Waun Williams (3)—-Quinton Dunbar (4)

Totals: Cardinals 39, Rams 37, 49ers 40, Seahawks 38

2020 NFC West Rookies:

Cardinals: LB/S Isaiah Simmons (+1), DT Leki Fotu, DT Rashard Lawrence, LB Evan Weaver

Rams: DE Terrell Lewis (+1), SS Terrell Burgess, FS Jordan Fuller, ILB Clay Johnsston

49ers: DT Javon Kinlaw (+1)

Seahawks: LB Jordyn Brooks (+1), DE Darrell Taylor, DE Alton Robinson

Total Points: Cardinals 40, Rams 38, 49ers 40, Seahawks 39.

Best Units:

DL: Rams

LBs: 49ers, Seahawks

DBs: 49ers, Seahawks


On paper, the Cardinals have upgraded their overall defensive talent, with the additions of DT Jordan Phillips, DE/OLB Devon Kennard, LB De’Vondre Campbell and LB/S Isaiah Simmons. Some key defections such as LB Cory Littleton (Rams—-UFA OAK), DE Clay Matthews (Rams—-unsigned), CB Marcus Peters (Rams-traded), CB Aqib Talib (Rams-traded), FS Eric Weddle (Rams—retired), DC Wade Phillips (Rams—-unsigned), DT DeForest Buckner (49ers—-traded), DE Jadaveon Clowney (Seahawks—-unsigned), LB Mychal Kendricks (Seahawks—-unsigned) have helped to create what appears to be a greater defensive parity in the division.


Cardinals—-Vance Jospeh (47, 2nd year, 3rd year as NFL DC plus 2 years NFL HC, disciple of Vic Fangio, Wade Phillips and Marvin Lewis)

Rams—-Brandon Staley (37, 1st year, 1st year as NFL DC, 4th year in NFL, disciple of Vic Fangio)

49ers—-Robert Saleh (41, 4th year, 4th year as NFL DC, 16th year in NFL, disciple of Pete Carroll)

Seahawks—-Ken Norton, Jr. (53, 3rd year, 6th year as NFL DC, 10th year in NFL, disciple of Pete Carroll)

What’s interesting about the coordinators in the NFC West is two of them (Jospeh and Staley) have been highly influenced by Vic Fangio and the other two (Saleh and Norton Jr.) by Pete Carroll.

The DC in the division who has perhaps a bit of an upper hand is Ken Norton, Jr. in that he is the DC for the only defensive minded HC in the division—-thus he can profit from having Pete Carroll to lean on for daily guidance/preparation/instruction and game planning. Plus, this will be Norton Jr.’s 8th year with Pete Carroll, having spent his first 5 years (2010-2014) of his NFL coaching career as Carroll’s linebacker coach. After Norton Jr. helped Carroll and the Seahawks win Super Bowl XLVIII, behind the stellar play of the Seahawks’ linebackers and the Legion of Boom, he was hired to be the Raiders’ DC in 2015.

Robert Saleh now has the experience of being a DC in the Super Bowl under his belt—-he is starting to emerge as one of the most promising young DCs and potential HC candidates in the NFL.

Vance Jospeh is the only DC in the division with NFL head coaching experience. The Cardinals’ players lobbied to Michael Bidwill and Steve Keim for the team to retain Vance Joseph because they want to keep the continuity and because they like working with him. One person close to the situation whom I have talked with told me that Jospeh, for the most part, had his defense fired up and playing very well in practice—-but, for whatever the reasons, the defense’s strong play in practice did not carry over on game days as well as the staff and players had hoped. Yes, we saw a whole lot of mental and physical mistakes, particularly whenever they needed to make a key stop.

I have also talked with someone who played for Joseph while he was head coach of the Broncos—-and what I heard was highly encouraging. The player told me that Coach Joseph was well liked, particularly by the defensive players, some of whom thought Jospeh got a raw deal because of the offensive personnel he was given, particularly at QB. I also heard a rumor that at the end of his first pre-season as HC, there was a young QB whom Jospeh liked a lot and wanted to keep, but the QB was cut by the GM who was hoping for the team to cash in eventually on 2016 1st round pick QB Paxton Lynch, especially after whiffing on 2012 2nd round pick, QB Brock Osweiler.

Obviously, the Cardinals were extremely difficult to watch on defense last year—-but Vance Joseph and the players are very excited to turn the tables around in 2020, as they started to do toward the end of the 2019 season in their wins overs the Browns at home and the Seahawks on the road.

Brandon Staley is the rookie of the bunch and he has a tough act to follow in Wade Phillips. Interesting, but Staley’s super-quick ascension to NFL DC in just his 4th NFL season is very reminiscent of James Bettcher’s. Bettcher spent two seasons learning from the Cardinals’ DC Todd Bowles, but never at any level had he coordinated a defense. However, in Bradon Staley’s case, he has spent the last three years as Vic Fangio’s linebacker coach (in Chicago and Denver), and, unlike the case with James Bettcher, Staley came to the NFL 4 years ago having spent 4 years as a college DC (John Carroll and James Madison). Therefore, the Rams have made a very interesting decision, parting ways with Wade Phillips, a Hall of Fame quality DC, in favor of turning the job over to Brandon Staley, a young, first-time NFL DC.

What all the DCs in the NFC West have in common is having to battle wits and play chess matches with the likes of Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, Brian Shottenheimer and Kliff Kingsbury. That is a tall order for any NFL DC.