For the fifth consecutive year, Rodney Gunter is going through offseason practices with the Cardinals, sweating his way through workouts with the other defensive linemen.
But his presence this spring was much more in doubt than the previous four.
Gunter was a free agent for the first time in March, and after a breakout year in 2018, the 27-year-old thought there would be strong demand for his services on the open market.
“I went in with high hopes,” he said.
Gunter said his agent received plenty of calls early in the process, but no official offer came to fruition. He visited the Packers in early April before ultimately deciding to re-sign with the Cardinals on a 1-year, $1.75 million contract.
“This is home, so I decided to come back here and give it another shot,” Gunter said. “I just have to keep my head up and keep striving to get better.”
Gunter finished last season with 48 tackles and four-and-a-half sacks. He led the team with two forced fumbles and tied for the lead with 14 tackles for loss. He was rated as the sixth-best defender on the team by Pro Football Focus.
Coach Kliff Kingsbury believed Gunter would likely depart once he reached free agency and was excited when he re-signed. Gunter is projected to start at one of the defensive end spots alongside Corey Peters and Darius Philon on the line.
“We thought he had a tremendous season last year,” Kingsbury said. “I wasn’t here, but obviously watching the film. It didn’t, I guess, go the way he wanted in free agency, but he’s a tremendous player, a great person and a great teammate. We were thrilled to death to get him back. He can provide great depth there at the D-line.”
While last season was impressive, teams may have been weary of a one-year outlier, which is why Peters is telling Gunter to make his worth “undeniable” in 2019.
“He has another great opportunity this year to play lots of snaps and get a lot more tape out there,” Peters said. “Continue to build on that year. Front offices and organizations are going to say everything they can to not have to pay you. Play so well that everybody that sees you play knows that you’re the man.”
Gunter was a fourth-round pick out of tiny Delaware State in 2015, and while he started as a rookie after Peters was lost for the season due to injury, he was still a raw prospect. There has been incremental growth over the past few years, with 2018 a big jump forward.
“He maybe had a little longer way to go than the other guys, but I think he’s done a great job of building himself, and I think the sky is still the limit for him,” Peters said.
If Gunter can keep progressing, a more lucrative payday could await next offseason.
“That’s the ultimate goal,” Gunter said. “Stay healthy, have another good season and give the thing another shot.”
Images from practice as the Cardinals start their second week of OTAs in 2019