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Cardinals camp preview: Defense and special teams

Howard Balzer Avatar
July 24, 2023

Are you ready for some football?

The answer to that part is obvious. However, the question for Cardinals fans is the brand of football they will see when training camp practice begins Wednesday with the first preseason game 16 days later and the season opener Sept. 10 in Washington. (The first practice open for fans to watch is Thursday.)

While the offseason has been overloaded with questions and speculation about quarterback Kyler Murray, there are a myriad of story lines to pursue.

We’ll start today with a look at the defense and special teams with the offense following Tuesday.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (coach Derrick LeBlanc, assistant William Peagler)

Eric Banks, L.J. Collier, Leki Fotu, Rashard Lawrence, Jonathan Ledbetter, Jacob Slade, Ben Stille, Dante Stills, Kevin Strong, Carlos Watkins

This group will be without J.J. Watt, who retired, and Zach Allen, who signed with the Denver Broncos as an unrestricted free agent.

LeBlanc and Peagler will try to cobble together a decent unit from a group that doesn’t look very formidable on paper. Lawrence and Fotu, both fourth-round picks in 2020, enter the final year of their contracts and haven’t been consistently productive in their first three seasons.

Lawrence has played well when he has been on the field, but has played only 25 of a possible 50 regular-season games, including only five last season. He didn’t practice during the offseason, so we will learn this week whether he is cleared to practice. That is also the case for Ledbetter, who showed promise in 2022, but ended the season injured and worked on the side in May and June.

Of the 10 linemen on the roster, sixth-round pick Stills and undrafted free agent Slade, are the only ones under contract beyond this season. Stills will be given every opportunity to prove he belongs. Collier, a first-round pick of the Seahawks in 2019 who played eight games last season, and Watkins, were with the first group during offseason workouts.

LINEBACKERS (coach Sam Siefkes, outside linebackers Rob Rodriguez)

Krys Barnes, Zaven Collins, Victor Dimukeje, Dennis Gardeck, Jesse Luketa, B.J. Ojulari, Owen Pappoe, Myjai Sanders, Kyle Soelle, Cameron Thomas, Ezekiel Turner, Kyzir White, Josh Woods

Camp will provide some insight into the scheme that young coordinator Nick Rallis (he turned 30 July 13) will implement and who will be the prominent pass rushers.

Collins will be watched closely to see if he lines up mostly on the outside along with second-round pick Ojulari, Sanders, Thomas, Gardeck, Dimukeje and possibly Luketa. Collins, Sanders, Thomas and Gardeck combined for a mere 9.0 sacks in 2022.

Jonathan Gannon, like every coach, wants competition for jobs and playing time and that will surely be the case.

White, who knows Gannon well from his time with the Eagles, is expected to be the leader on the inside, but he is another player that was not on the field in the offseason.

Keep an eye on Barnes and Woods, who are on 1-year contracts after being signed as free agents, along with fifth-round pick Pappoe, who is undersized but has exemplary athletic tools.

DEFENSIVE BACKS (coach Patrick Toney, cornerbacks Ryan Smith)

S Budda Baker, CB Kris Boyd, S Kendell Brooks, S Andre Chachere, CB Kei’Trel Clark, CB Rashad Fenton, CB Nate Hairston, CB Antonio Hamilton Sr., S JuJu Hughes, CB Dylan Mabin, CB Christian Matthew, CB Kyler McMichael, S Jovante Moffatt, CB Bobby Price, S Isaiah Simmons, S Jalen Thompson, CB Quavian White, CB Garrett Williams, CB Marco Wilson

Count ‘em up: There are currently 19 defensive backs on the roster, a total that includes 12 cornerbacks.

Most important is how the coaches plan to get the most out of Simmons, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract. He is considered a safety, but the duo of Baker (assuming the club finds a way to keep him happy) and Thompson is simply one of the top tandems in the NFL.

Where does Simmons fit? It might not look much different than it was last season when most of his snaps came as a defensive back, but there were still times when he moved up in the box. That still might be the case, especially on early downs.

Wilson and Hamilton return, and it’s time for the former to take a big step in his third season. Matthew was raw when he came to the Cardinals as a seventh-round pick last season, but he could be ready to make a nice jump. Clark, a sixth-round choice this season, will also be given every opportunity to show how much he’s capable of doing.

The wild card is Williams, a talented third-round pick this year, who suffered a torn ACL with Syracuse last season and was a non-participant in the offseason.

There will be competition for depth jobs at safety between Hughes and Chachere, who can also play corner if needed, along with undrafted free agent Brooks.

SPECIAL TEAMS (coordinator/assistant head coach Jeff Rodgers, assistant Sam Sewell)

LS Aaron Brewer, LS Jack Coco, P Nolan Cooney, P Matt Haack, K Matt Prater, KR Greg Dortch, KR Rondale Moore

Prater and Brewer are back, but punter Andy Lee is not, meaning Haack and Cooney will be competing for that job along with being the holder for Prater. Haack, who attended Arizona State, entered the NFL in 2017 and was with the Colts last season.

If Moore has a prominent role on offense, there will likely be hesitance to employ him as a returner, especially considering his injury history. Dortch is more than capable. Surely, there will be others given chances in the preseason, possibly including undrafted free-agent running back Emari Demercado.

Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: howard@gophnx.com. Also, become a DIEHARD and use the promo code HOWARD

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