Background: ARLINGTON, TEXAS - JANUARY 02: Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys carries the ball against Zach Allen #94 of the Arizona Cardinals and Victor Dimukeje #52 of the Arizona Cardinals in the fourth quarter at AT&T Stadium on January 02, 2022 in Arlington, Texas.
DI (6): J.J. Watt, Zach Allen, Rashard Lawrence, Leki Fotu, Michael Dogbe, Manny Jones.
It was an auspicious start for the Cardinals young defensive interior players, as projected starting NT Rashard Lawrence and rotation cogs Leki Fotu and Michael Dogbe dominated the line of scrimmage during the Cardinals’ impressive 36-23 pre-season win in Cincinnati.
The major surprise was the outstanding play of undrafted free agent Manny Jones (6-4, 290, Colorado St.) who played with the kind of bounce and relentless hustle that popped off the screen. I am dating myself here, but, in Manny Jones, I thought I was seeing a reincarnation of Patriots’ DT Sugar Ray Hamilton. Jones collected 5 tackles, one of which was thunderous hit he made downfield on a RB who was trying to advance a swing pass.
And Manny Jones was not the only rotational defensive interior standout at Cincy. Jonathan Ledbetter (6-4, 280, Georgia, UCFA 2019) and Christian Ringo (6-1, 298, Louisiana Tech, R6 pick by GB in 2015) combined for 4 QB pressures and 6 tackles. For their efforts, Ledbetter and Ringo earned 86.1 and 80.5 PFF grades respectively.
Ideally the Cardinals could keep the six players above and be able to pass Ledbetter and Ringo through waivers so as to re-sign them to the practice squad and have the ability to promote them on game days. However, when players put such quality play on tape the way Ledbetter and Ringo did, some team is apt to take notice.
What was so impressive about the Cardinals’ defensive play up front was how the DTs were winning the initial pop, shedding their blocks, finding the football and making high impact tackles. Credit Buddy Morris for having these guys in good football shape and the Cardinals new defensive line coach, Matt Burke, a 19 year NFL veteran, for the noticeable improvement in physicality and technique.
I hemmed and hawed over which of the three (Jones, Ledbetter and Ringo) to name to the 53 man roster —- I can make a strong case for each of them. But, I chose Manny Jones because he is the youngest and because of how he endeared himself to his teammates in delivering his remarkable impression of Kyler Murray during the rookie talent show.
It should be interesting to see how well Jones, Ledbetter and Ringo play this week and whether all three of them could continue to play their way into bona fide 53 man oster consideration.
ILB (4): Zaven Collins, Nick Vigil, Tanner Vallejo, Zeke Turner
In rewatching the tape, Zaven Collins’ play wasn’t as poor as some fans are claiming. Yes, he was a step too late in reacting to a couple of plays, but, by and large, he was as solid as his 71.9 PFF grade suggests. Zeke Turner (74.1) was a sweet surprise at WILB, where he delivered 3 tackles and played with aggression, both versus the run and in pass coverage. We have yet to see Nick Vigil yet, but it’s very good to know that two ballers like Zeke Turner and Tanner Vallejo (who stars in the goal line defense) are capable contributors.
Ben Niemman , with his 5 tackles (4 solo), solid pass coverage and 80.1 PFF grade is thus far making a good case to make the roster. Undrafted rookie Chandler Wooten (65.5) acquitted himself quite well in his NFL debut, and would appear to be a strong candidate for the PS.
Edge (7): Markus Golden, Dennis Gardeck, Victor Dimukeje, Cam Thomas, Myjai Sanders, Jesse Luketa, Jesse Lemonier
Dennis Gardeck (79.8) showed a strong burst off the edge early. And while Markus Golden was being rested, his protege, “Junk Junior”, Victor Dimukeje (91.0) was relentlessly dominant while posting 6 QB pressures, 2 sacks and a forced fumble. Clearly, Dimukeje has taken full advantage of the Cardinals’ off-season training regimen, because he has become noticeably stronger and quicker. Cam Thomas (51.8) did a good job of setting the edge, but he was only able to generate 1 QB pressure. Myjai Sanders (78.1), on the other hand, was a disruptive force off the edge, earning an 83.3 pass rushing grade, which was 3rd on the team behind Jesse Lemonier (94.1) and Victor Dimukeje (92.3). What Sanders wasn’t able to do was finish off his tackles.
Jesse Luketa (60.5) made his physical presence felt from the get-go, not only in blowing up blockers, but in chasing down plays with ferocity, the same he did in kick coverage when he put a thunder tackle on the returner. His 65.8 special teams’ grade was 3rd best on the team for those who played in 10 or more snaps. Luketa has the look of a special teams’ dynamo in the mode of Dennis Gardeck and Zeke Turner. This is why he appears to be a lock to make the roster.
The highest PFF grade on defense was posted by Jessie Lemonier at 94.8. His QB pressure numbers were Gardeckian. In 8 pass rushes, Lemonier generated 3 QB pressure, 1 sack and 1 forced fumble. Lemonier had a very good game rushing the edge against the Cardinals, helping to lead the Lions to their upset win last year. The Cardinals were paying attention.
The Cardinals’ infusion of young talent on the edge has likely created a scenario where they will have to try to trade Devon Kennard. In restructuring his contract, Kennard would only count $1.25M in base salary for any team that trades for him. A trade or a release will leave the Cardinals with $3.6M in dead cap space. Kennard’s niche on the Cardinals is in setting the edge on the goal-line defense. That’s the kind of niche that could draw the interest of a team like the Patriots. Meanwhile, the Cardinals have three solid candidates to fill that role in Victor Dimukeje, Cam Thomas and Jesse Luketa.
CB (5): Byron Murphy, Antonio Hamilton, Marco Wilson, Josh Jackson, Christian Matthew
Christian Matthew (81.4) looked like a seasoned veteran in his NFL debut. His 87.9 pass coverage grade was by far the best on the team. Josh Jackson (61.1) made a couple of nice pass breakups. Antonio Hamilton (67.9 in pass coverage), did not allow a single target or completion.
Marco Wilson (43.0) had a rough performance. He needs a strong bounce-back game this week.
Jace Whittaker posted a 72.2 coverage grade while manning the slot. And in 23 snaps Cortez Davis (69.5) made a good tackle and only gave up 1 reception for 5 yards.
S (4): Budda Baker, Jalen Thompson, Isaiah Simmons, Deionte Thompson
While Isaiah Simmons is being called the “star linebacker”, I listed him as a safety because he is likely going to be used the way the Chargers employ superstar safety Derwin James. The triangle of Budda, Jalen and Isaiah should be fascinating to watch.
Not sure why Deionte Thompson did not play versus the Bengals. Charles Washington (62.3) started at FS next to James Wiggins (52.5) at SS. The nice surprise was the play of undrafted free agent Tae Daley (63.9).
I think that the Cardinals will hope to pass Washington, Wiggins and Daley through waivers with the hope of re-signing 2 of them, or all 3. Washington is a superb gunner on STs, so waiving him might be tricky. That’s a tough call —- one of many that the Cardinals will have to make.
ST (3): Andy Lee, Matt Prater, Aaron Brewer
if it were me, I would go with P Nolan Cooney (stronger leg), K Matt McCrane (more accurate) and Aaron Brewer, but, time and time again, Steve Keim sticks with the veteran kickers. Man, Lee and Prater are making me nervous. Do you feel the same?