As the football saying goes, building a great teams starts in the trenches. And the Cardinals witnessed first hand what a dominant defensive line and a lackluster one can do for the overall effectiveness of the defense.
Last offseason, the Arizona Cardinals invested heavily in star defensive end J.J. Watt, with a two-year $31 million contract, and he rewarded the team with consistent pass rush that resulted in a hot 7-0 start.
Unfortunately in the Week 7 win over the Houston Texans, Watt tore his labrum, his bicep, and his rotator cuff that forced him to miss the remainder of the regular season. The fact that he returned in the playoffs is pretty miraculous if you asked me. The Cardinals went from allowing 16.28 points per game through the first seven weeks with Watt to 25.2 in the final 10 regular season games without him. Losing four out of the last five regular season games was brutal for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
It is fair to say that the loss of Watt affected his teammates greatly and the stats speaks for itself. Markus Golden’s play dwindled in the second half of the season. He had 31 pressures and nine sacks through the first nine games but 13 pressures and two sacks in his last seven. And the big issue with Golden, as with many other Cardinals, is his struggle to stop the run. Chandler Jones had a few great performances in 2021 but had stretches of games where he looked nonexistent.
Watt made the defense click and the impact he had on this football club last season is evident in the Cardinals’ strong start to begin 2021.
With that being said, having a dominant defensive line is key for the Cardinals defensive success. If Watt can stay healthy for an entire season (I understand that is a big “if”), Arizona’s defense will be a top 10 unit. 2019 third-round pick Zach Allen had a breakout season of sorts last year with career highs in tackles (48) and sacks (4) with an interception and his first-career touchdown on a fumble return.
The Cardinals re-signed Michael Dogbe to a one-year deal who, just like Allen, flashed potential when on the football field. 2020 fourth-round pick Rashard Lawrence might have been their best run stuffer on their defensive line last season but is more of a depth player than anything else at the moment. Leki Fotu has been a nonfactor in the first two years of his career so his role in 2022 remains unknown. Arizona released the often-injured Jordan Phillips after signing a lucrative three-year $30 million deal in 2020.
So what can the Cardinals do to improve their defensive line?
Well, Calais Campbell will not be returning to Arizona and will finish his career in the east coast after re-signing with the Baltimore Ravens on a two-year deal. Notable, but aging, players available in free agency include Akiem Hicks (32), Linval Joseph (33), Sheldon Richardson (31), and Ndamukong Suh (35). Some intriguing younger guys include Eddie Goldman (28) and Larry Ogunjobi (27), who intended to sign with the Bears but failed his physical.
Arizona could turn to the draft and target top prospects such as Georgia’s Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt. Cardinals’ defensive coordinator Vance Joseph attended University of Houston’s Pro Day to do his homework on the explosive three technique defensive tackle Logan Hall.
The truth of the matter, despite the lack of notable free agent acquisitions, is the fact that there is good talent remaining for the Cardinals to sign if they have interest in doing so. They are projected to have three compensatory draft picks in 2023 which is more than likely the reason why Steve Keim has been reluctant to add any player of high value this offseason. Player signed on or after June 1st do not count in the compensatory pick formula. Jordan Phillips was designated a post-June 1st release so the $10 million in cap savings will not be available until then.
Are the Cardinals comfortable with the talent they currently have or do they plan on being more active after the draft?
Their run defense was exploited and exposed from players such as Vikings’ Dalvin Cook and Seahawks’ Rashaad Penny, who gashed them for 190 rushing yards in Week 18. They cannot simply roll with who they currently have especially with no true nose tackle on the roster.
Chandler Jones is now with the Las Vegas Raiders and one would think Arizona will be in the market for a top EDGE rusher in the draft with players such as Penn State’s Arnold Ebiketie and Minnesota’s Boye Mafe expected to be in play at pick No. 23. Jadeveon Clowney, Justin Houston, and Melvin Ingram are still free agents. The possibility remains that Dennis Gardeck, who re-signed with Arizona on a three-year $12 million, could start opposite Golden with the hope that he can recapture his 2020 magic of seven sacks. Unrestricted free agent Corey Peters spent the last seven seasons with the Cardinals but the 33-year-old nose tackle is not expected to return to the desert
The Cardinals need to have better replacement options in place in case of another J.J. Watt injury.
Arizona will make more impactful moves following the conclusion of the 2022 NFL Draft, and possibly prior, but this is a waiting game or a we-shall-see kind of situation at this point.
Let’s see if this quiet offseason pays off for the Cardinals in the 2022 season.