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The 2021 Cardinals defense gets mixed reviews. On one hand, they forced many turnovers with 13 interceptions and 14 fumble recoveries. On the other hand, the run defense ranked 26th for the second year in a row, and the pass defense was near the bottom with 30 touchdowns allowed. The organization did not make wholesale changes on the defensive side, but there are some interesting developments to look at and a sprinkling of new faces in the lineup.
The team had no first-round pick and used their second-round on a tight end. With the first of their two in round three, they added San Diego State defensive lineman Cameron Thomas. Scouts differed on what would be the best fit for Thomas at the pro level. Some pictured him as a base 4-3 end, while others believed he could add some beef and muscle to become a very good 3-4 end. Most agreed that he is a versatile player with the potential to be successful in either three or four-man fronts.
While Thomas lacks the quick-twitch and speed of an elite edge rusher, he has the motor and technical skills to contribute as a pass rusher from any alignment. He did a great job as a run defender for the Aztecs but will need to add some beef and muscle to hold up as a full-time 3-4 end, which is what the Cardinals envision Thomas eventually being. In his scouting report, NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein compared Thomas to Sam Hubbard.
In terms of statistics, Thomas was impressive while playing mostly both defensive end and three-technique tackle for the Aztecs. Over three seasons there, he tallied 20 sacks and 155 combined tackles. Thomas was particularly impressive as a junior last year, with 71 combined tackles and 10.5 sacks.
Thomas will likely start the season as the third man in the defensive end rotation. With the injury history of J.J. Watt, however, there is a good chance Thomas will have a major role by the end of the year.
Watt is set to begin his 12th season in the league, providing of course, that he can make it through training camp healthy. That has been a challenge for him in recent years as he regularly opens the season nursing some ailment. At 33 years old, Watt has a lot of mileage on him and is not the same dominating player we saw early in his career, but the man can still get it done when he is not hurt.
From 2012 through 2015, Watt was arguably the best defensive player in the league and easily the fantasy game’s number one defender. Since that time, however, he has recorded more than five sacks in a season once and more than 16 solo tackles twice. Watt had a decent year in 2020, playing in all 16 games despite nagging injuries, but he has been a major IDP factor once (2018) in the last six years. At this stage of his career, Watt is worthy of a late-round pick as a DL3 with DL2 upside until he gets hurt.
Zach Allen solidified his hold on the other defensive end position with a solid performance in 2021. On the field, Allen is a good fit for what the Cardinals do. He is sturdy versus the run with a knack for getting off blocks and making plays at the point of attack and can make a little contribution as a pass rusher. At 30-15-3 with 3 batted passes, a pick, and 3 fumble recoveries in 14 games, Allen made it into the IDP conversation late in the season as well. He is not going to be an every-week must-start but with many of our stud defensive ends being re-designated as outside linebackers, Allen is worthy of a roster spot as a DL3 in most leagues.
For managers in leagues that break out the defensive line positions, take a look to see where Allen is slotted. There are a few league hosts, including MyFantasyLeague, that have Allen as a tackle. At that position, he would be at least a solid second starter.
Rashard Lawrence likely gets the title of starter at nose tackle but he will rotate with Leki Fotu. Last year, the team had three players see action at the position, including Corey Peters who has moved on. Between them, the three totaled 24 tackles and 27 assists, with no sacks. Lawrence and Fotu are solid contributors on the field but have nothing to offer in IDP terms.
- DE J.J. Watt – Late/last round DL3 with a little upside until he gets hurt
- DE/DT Zach Allen – Decent DL3 or strong DT2 if you can play him inside
- DE Cameron Thomas – Dynasty/sleeper target with long-term upside
- DE Michael Dogbe – No impact
- DE Kingsley Keke – No impact
- NT Leki Fotu – No impact
- NT Rashard Lawrence – No impact
There was a time, not so long ago, when linebackers drafted in the first round were expected to be immediate starters. We are now seeing more and more instances where these players are given lesser roles as rookies before moving into major roles in year two. The Cardinals have followed this recipe twice now. They selected Isaiah Simmons eighth overall in 2020 only to have him play third fiddle behind DeVondre Campbell and Jordan Hicks. Campbell moved on after that season, opening a spot for Simmons to start. Last spring, the team landed Zaven Collins at 16 but had him sit behind Simmons and Hicks. Now that Hicks is in Minnesota, the organization is finally ready to unveil what they hope to be their dynamic duo at inside linebacker.
The two young linebackers should complement one another well. Simmons is the new wave inside linebacker. A lighter (225 pounds) faster, more athletic player with great range, strong cover skills, and a knack for the big play. His tackle totals were less than IDP managers had hoped for in 2021, at 69 solo and 37 assists, but Simmons did not disappoint in the splash play columns with a sack and a half, five turnovers, and seven pass breakups. Simmons will line up as the weak inside backer where his skill set best fits and he will have room to navigate.
Collins has a much different skill set. At 260 pounds, he is huge for an inside linebacker by today’s standards and is a physical run defender that hits like a truck. Don’t let that fool you into thinking he is a two-down thumper though. Collins is more of a physical presence with the ability to take on blockers, stack and shed in small spaces, and get after the passer on the blitz, but he is not slow by any means and even has the versatility to line up on the edge once in a while. He is a freakish athlete with good speed, solid cover skills, and a penchant for making game-changing plays. All this was on display in his final season at Tulsa, where Collins filled the stat sheet in 2020. That season he recorded 54 combined tackles and assists, 7 turnovers, 4 sacks, and a pair of scores in just eight games. Collins’ overall skill set and ability to stay on the field in all situations, make him a great fit as a potential three-down player at the strong inside linebacker position. His size and physical nature make Collins a great compliment to the smaller Simmons, while his versatility allows a lot of options for defensive coordinator Vance Joseph.
So what does all that mean in terms of box score production? The jury is still out on that but it is worth mentioning that the guy he will be replacing (Hicks) was second on the team in tackles at 77-39, and had 5 sacks and 3 turnovers.
The Cardinals signed veteran Nick Vigil to fill the gap on their depth chart at inside linebacker. He and Tanner Vallejo are solid veteran players. Vigil, in particular, has a lot of starting experience over his six NFL seasons. He is unlikely to have a significant role unless there is an injury, but should one of the starters go down, Vigil can fill in at either spot more than adequately. He is even capable of three-down duty if needed.
In Markus Golden, the Cardinals have one of the league’s most underrated edge defenders. He has dealt with a pair of serious injuries along the way but Golden has reached double-digit sacks three times in his career, including 2019 with the Giants and last year in Arizona.
The bigger question for the organization is, how will they replace Chandler Jones on the other side? He missed most of 2020 with an injury but Jones reached double-digit sacks in each of his other five seasons with the team, averaging nearly 14 while creating 33 turnovers. He was almost as good at setting the edge versus the run.
Arizona used the second of their third-round picks, on Cincinnati’s Myjai Sanders. The youngster played well for the Bearcats but hardly well enough to be mentioned in the same breath with a future Hall-of-Fame candidate. Sanders will compete with Devon Kennard and Dennis Gardeck for snaps opposite Golden. Gardeck has seven career sacks, all coming in 2020 when Jones was out. Kennard has 26 sacks over his eight years in the league, including a pair of seven sack seasons while with the Lions in 2018 and 2019. Between them, they may form a serviceable committee, but none of these guys will ever be mistaken for Chandler Jones.
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