As the Arizona Cardinals make their final roster cuts, there are a number of positions with uncertain depth -– understandable given the amount of free agents the team picked up in their abbreviated offseason. However, the defensive line is not one of them. Though the unit as a whole underperformed last season, nearly every member of the D-line is a high draft pick, a young player with a lot of upside, or a veteran in his prime, making for one of the more clear-cut position groups on the team.
Obviously, Darnell Dockett, who just signed a lucrative contract extension before last season, will be a starting end on the defensive line. Though he had a somewhat down season in 2010-2011, he has been a Pro Bowler and has great instincts and work ethic, and developed into a vocal leader on the defense, as well as a leader by example.
Calais Campbell, in his fourth year, is also a lock to make the roster as the other starting end. He led the team in sacks last season, with a disappointing six. Given his intimidating size (6’8", 300 pounds) and his surprising quickness, the Cardinals will be expecting Campbell to continue his growth into a star. His role will be especially important in defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s scheme that emphases a line’s ability to occupy blockers.
The most interesting spot on the line is nose tackle. 2010 first-round pick Dan Williams came to camp overweight and out-of-shape – a victim of the lockout, essentially, without coaching supervision. However, given his lofty draft status and his incredible upside, there is no way he will be cut. But Williams will have surprising competition from 2011 sixth-round pick David Carter, out of UCLA. Carter is technically more of an end, but he has been playing some NT and has been a camp stud, surprising a lot of people who labeled him a draft afterthought. He isn’t likely to start, but if Williams can’t shed some of his weight, Carter may see more playing time than anyone expected.
"David Carter is one of the young guys I'm excited about," Coach Ken Whisenhunt said this week. "He's earned the respect of his teammates and that's not always easy to do as a rookie...He's been a nice surprise and I'm excited to see how he continues to grow in that position."
As for backups on the line, the Cardinals face a little bit of trouble, having lost Bryan Robinson (NT), Gabe Watson (NT), and Alan Branch (DE). Newly acquired Vonnie Holliday and newly signed Nick Eason are likely to make the team for defensive depth. Eason will be especially important, considering Dockett admitted he was overworked last season.
The training camp story for the defensive line is not a dramatic one, but it is one of the team’s few recognized positions of strength and depth. Most fans, coaches, and analysts blamed last year’s subpar production on the overall slump of the team. With the Cardinals operating under a renewed sense of enthusiasm, hopefully the D-line will live up to its potential.