The line played at an elite level, helping Arizona become the NFL's best run defense.
By Craig Morgan
Over the next several weeks, FOX Sports Arizona will conduct a position-by-position analysis of the Arizona Cardinals, examining their personnel's strengths and weaknesses, the team's free agents at that position and the team's draft or free-agent needs.
DE Calais Campbell, NT Dan Williams, DT Darnell Dockett: Campbell emerged as an elite end this season with 58 tackles (45 solos) and nine sacks. His technique improves each season, including his long-stated weakness of getting too high in his stance because of his height (6-8). He's well-respected by coaches, players and media; he's bright, hard-working and motivated to achieve greater things, making the Cardinals look very wise for giving him in 2012 a five-year contract extension worth $55 million with $31 million guaranteed.
I don't want to be one of those guys who has done so much for one organization and then goes to another and starts over. But whatever happens, happens.
Williams' was one of the biggest reasons the Cardinals' run defense finished the season ranked No. 1 in the NFL (84.4 yards per game). This is what the Cardinals envisioned when they spent a first-round pick on Williams in 2010 (26th overall). Williams endured tragedy this season when his father died in a car accident while driving with his family to watch the Cardinals play in New Orleans, but Williams returned to the lineup after two weeks off and his play appeared to take another step up.
Dockett's contract will be one of the biggest storylines of the offseason. Dockett is due to make a base salary of $5.5 million next season (the second-to-last year of his deal) and his cap number is $8.75 due to various bonuses. But it carries $6 million in dead money so the Cardinals would only save $2.75 million by releasing him, versus $6.8 million the following year. Earlier this season, Dockett expressed no real interest in restructuring his salary, but he also noted how little he wants to move to another team at his age (he'll be 33 when next season starts).
"I don't want to be one of those guys who has done so much for one organization and then goes to another and starts over," he said. "But whatever happens, happens. It's not the end of the world."
When an organization decides to cut ties with such a high-profile, impact player, it normally has another waiting in the wings. The Cardinals do not have that player now, as they did in Campbell when they let Antonio Smith walk away. Coach Bruce Arians believes Dockett played at an elite level for most of the season despite the fact that he had just 46 tackles (36 solos) and 4.5 sacks. Another season of 9-0 makes sense.
DT Frostee Rucker, NT Alameda Ta'amu, DE Ronald Talley: Ta'amu was the most pleasant surprise of this group. The Cardinals claimed him off waivers from the Steelers on Sept. 1 and he exceeded all expectations, solidifying the nose tackle rotation with Williams and making the Cardinals a run-stuffing force in the middle. Ta'amu is an exclusive rights free agent (if the team offers him the three-year veteran minimum salary, he has to take it or leave the NFL) who the Cardinals want back. Unfortunately for Ta'amu, he tore his ACL in the season finale against the 49ers, putting his availability for the start of the season in serious doubt.
Talley was a surprise when he made the roster out of training camp over David Carter, but Arians called him "country strong" at the point of attack and Talley does have some versatility. Still, he wasn't a major factor and it would not be surprising if the Cardinals looked to upgrade.
Rucker was a good backup with 11 tackles (nine solos) and a sack. He's a positive influence in the locker room, a terrific quote and he's only 30, so he has plenty of mileage left. But again, the Cardinals could look elsewhere for depth next season if the price isn't right. Rucker started all 16 games with the Cleveland Browns in 2012. He had four sacks, a forced fumble, a pass defensed and his 48 tackles were the third-most on the team.
Nothing significant jumps out unless the Cardinals elect to release Dockett or believe they can upgrade over Rucker or Talley. The staff has shown a consistent desire to turn over the bottom of the roster if better players are available at the right cost. The Cardinals also may want to find a backup nose tackle if Ta'amu isn't going to be ready by the start of the season.
Draft needs: An elite pass rusher would add another element to this defense. It would help if the Cardinals could find that element in a player who can eventually replace Dockett.
Top potential draft prospects
DEs: Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina; Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame; Kony Ealy, Missouri; Trent Murphy, Stanford; Trevor Reilly, Utah; Chris Smith, Arkansas; Scott Chrichton, Oregon State; Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas; Marcus Smith, Louisville; Demarcus Lawrence, Boise State; Kareem Martin, North Carolina.
DTs: Louis Nix, Notre Dame; RaShede Hageman, Minnesota; Will Sutton, ASU; Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh; Ego Ferguson, LSU; Timmy Jernigan, Florida State; DaQuan Jones, Penn State; Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina; Dominique Easley, Florida; Anthony Johnson, LSU.