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It’s Now or Never for Rashard Lawrence and Leki Fotu to impress as Cardinals

Two 2020 fourth-round selections by Arizona are entering final year of rookie contracts

Syndication: Arizona Republic Michael Chow/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

During the 2020 offseason, the Arizona Cardinals made a big emphasis in bolstering their defensive line.

The Cardinals signed Jordan Phillips, who at the time was coming off a 10-sack season with Buffalo, to a lucrative three-year $30 million contract.

Arizona drafted Utah defensive tackle Leki Fotu with the 114th pick in the 2020 NFL Draft and, too many people’s surprise, selected a second-consecutive defensive tackle in LSU’s Rashard Lawrence 17 picks later.

Fast forward to 2023, Phillips is a year removed as a Cardinal. Arizona’s 2019 third-round selection Zach Allen signed a three-year $45.75 million contract with the Denver Broncos. Now all that remains of the 2020 defensive line group is Lawrence and Fotu as they head into the final year of their rookie deals.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Arizona Cardinals Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Durability and availability are some of the most important abilities that any NFL player can have. Unfortunately for Rashard Lawrence, injuries have been his story throughout the first three years of his NFL career.

Lawrence missed 25 games over the last three seasons with hand and shoulder injuries. However when healthy, he has proven to be a serviceable player in the Cardinals’ defensive line rotation. Lawrence had the highest Pro Football Focus run defense grade (65.5) among all Cardinals’ defensive lineman in 2021.

During his time as an LSU Tiger, Lawrence was praised for his high character and was voted a team captain in consecutive years (2018-19). He was also Fiesta Bowl’s defensive MVP in LSU’s 2019 win over UCF at State Farm Stadium. Point being, Lawrence is no stranger to defensive success in Arizona but needs to prove he can stay healthy in a critical year for him on an expiring contract.

Arizona Cardinals v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

His stout performances against the run had him in consideration for being the eventual replacement for Corey Peters, who was the Cardinals’ starting nose tackle for seven seasons (2015-21).

Now taking a look at the first of the Cardinals’ 2020 fourth-round picks, Leki Fotu was not necessarily known for his football talents but his athletic ability as a rugby player. And his skills in that sport translated into college football as a Utah Ute was great success. This mammoth of a player standing at 6-feet-5 330 pounds earned first-team All-Pac honors in 2018 and 2019.

However, Fotu’s NFL history in fact is the complete opposite of Lawrence. He has been one of the most durable players on the Cardinals’ roster over the last three seasons, having missed only five games in his career all in his rookie season. Fotu is also coming off his most productive season as a professional football player making a career high in starts (9) and tackles (31) last year.

Arizona Cardinals v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Statistically speaking and with all things considered, Fotu’s impact as a football player has been minimal in his first three years in the NFL.

With a new coaching staff in place now led by head coach Jonathan Gannon and defensive coordinator Nick Rallis, this change could do wonders in unlocking the potential of both Rashard Lawrence and Leki Fotu. If Lawrence can stay healthy, he will be an asset on a defensive line that saw no significant additions made to the position this offseason. If the Cardinals’ coaching staff can successfully teach Fotu the necessary repertoire of pass rush moves to mix in with his already athletic profile, he could be a sleeper player to watch this season.

Seemingly no player on the Cardinals’ current defensive line is guaranteed to make the 53-man roster. Hypotheticals are swarming and the possibilities are endless in what their starting defensive line will look like in their Week 1 regular season opener against the Washington Commanders.

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

As players entering their fourth and final year of their rookie deals, it is now or never for Rashard Lawrence and Leki Fotu to impress to possibly earn a second contract to stay in Arizona beyond the 2023 season.