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Cardinals 2022 training camp battle: Defensive Line

After J.J. Watt and Zach Allen, uncertainty lies ahead

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Here is a late night article as the Arizona Cardinals resume practice on Monday.

Cardinals’ training camp has already begun with their first preseason game only a couple weeks away on August 12.

As the battle to make the 53-man roster begins, one of the more intriguing position battles with a group of players with lots to prove is the defensive line.

J.J. Watt signed a two-year deal with the Cardinals last offseason and the addition proved to be an excellent one. He dominated his competition with 28 quarterback pressures through the first seven weeks of 2021 prior to sustaining multiple injuries that sidelined him for the remainder of the regular season. A healthy Watt is a game changer.

On the opposite end of the defensive line, 2019 third-round pick Zach Allen is entering a contract year as he is coming off the best season of his career. He set career highs with 48 tackles, four sacks, an interception, and 26 quarterback pressures in 14 starts. Allen also had three fumbles recoveries with one being returned for a touchdown in Week 18 against the Seattle Seahawks. He could be in for a huge pay day if he makes another considerable jump in production this season. Another breakout year by Allen would aid the Cardinals’ efforts in returning to the postseason.

Arizona Cardinals v Chicago Bears Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

After them, that is where the battle of the uncertain begins.

2020 fourth-round pick Rashard Lawrence flashed his run-stuffing ability at nose tackle as he started in seven of 11 games last season. The hope is he can find that consistency and become that run plug in the middle of the defensive line. Though he is currently the projected starter, Lawrence will have some competition as the Cardinals inked five-year veteran Antwaun Woods to a one-year contract only a couple days ago. He made 32 starts with the Dallas Cowboys between 2018 and 2020 before landing a backup role with the Indianapolis Colts last year.

With Woods being a journeyman and Lawrence still having much to prove, nose tackle remains a position of need.

Arizona Cardinals v Cleveland Browns Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images

As for the backup positions behind Watt and Allen, it remains a wide-open battle with jobs up for the taking.

Free agent acquisition Kingsley Keke is the Cardinals’ top backup defensive linemen while being the most accomplished with 6.5 sacks over the last two seasons with the Green Bay Packers. 2019 seventh-round pick Michael Dogbe continued to flash his pass rush potential in limited reps last season which earned him another one-year deal this offseason. 2020 fourth-round pick Leki Fotu has the most to prove as he has not had much of an impact in his first two years in the NFL. Five-year veteran Christian Ringo set a career high in tackles (26) with the Saints last year.

The Cardinals went the inexpensive route in trying to upgrade their defensive line with Dogbe, Keke, Ringo, and Woods agreeing to deals near or at the veteran minimum. Allen, Fotu, and Lawrence are still on their rookie contracts. Manny Jones was signed as an undrafted free agent and Jonathan Ledbetter agreed to a “futures” deal earlier this year.

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It is a little bizarre that the only player the Cardinals invested heavily in on the defensive line is J.J. Watt, having not added any other proven free agent with significant success in the NFL. Based off the downward direction and effectiveness of the defensive line without Watt last season, it would be preferred to see this team add more proven players to their front seven to further bolster their depth.

They have enough cap space to add a more accomplished veteran or two in free agency which includes Linval Joseph, Sheldon Richardson, and Ndamukong Suh. I would not rule out a potential Corey Peters return during the season.

A vast majority would agree that the defensive line remains thin on depth on the Cardinals’ roster. If their 2020 fourth-round picks in Fotu and Lawrence can become impactful rotational players that GM Steve Keim drafted them to be in Vance Joseph’s defense, that will solidify their defensive line rotation heading into Week 1 of the 2022 regular season.

I expect the Cardinals to keep seven defensive lineman on their roster.

Let the battle begin!