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After 'Roller-Coaster Ride' As Rookie, Zach Allen Ready To Return

Defensive lineman, injured most of 2019, expected for major role

Cardinals defensive end Zach Allen pressures Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins during a 2019 preseason game in Minnesota.
Cardinals defensive end Zach Allen pressures Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins during a 2019 preseason game in Minnesota.

Before the coronavirus shut down NFL facilities, before every person found themselves spending all their time in their own homes, Zach Allen would sit in the mostly empty Cardinals' locker room at the team's practice facility just wishing he could get on the field.

At one point, he got the attention of veteran guard Justin Pugh, who told Allen -- the second-year defensive end who missed most of his rookie season with a neck injury -- that whenever they get back on the field this offseason Allen better not go too hard when the two meet.

"I'm like, 'I've got to get my reps, man,' " Allen said before players were sent home because of COVID-19. "We'll see how it goes. When that day comes, I can't wait. That's all I'm thinking about."

Allen will be waiting for longer than he had hoped, of course. The players were supposed to reconvene at the Dignity Health Arizona Cardinals Training Center on April 20. That obviously will not happen, and as the world tries to deal with COVID-19, it seems more likely than not the entire offseason work will be wiped out.

Coach Kliff Kingsbury preached perspective when he talked about the Cardinals' situation, but that doesn't mean it won't eat at Allen, who remains a key piece of the Cards' refurbished defensive line. They signed free agent Jordan Phillips and have Corey Peters. For now, Allen figures to also start, although the Cardinals could still spend the No. 8 overall pick later this month on a defensive lineman who could step in, someone like Auburn's Derrick Brown.

It isn't dissimilar to the spot Allen was in last season.

Allen is the team's third-round pick from 2019, the guy who was supposed to be help off the bench for a line that would have Peters, Rodney Gunter and newcomer Darius Philon. Then Philon's off-the-field trouble led to his release, and Allen was suddenly a starter.

That lasted only a few games, and as Allen was trying to get his feet underneath him in the NFL, his neck injury sent him to the sideline. The idea was that he'd eventually return to play, but he suffered multiple setbacks in practice, and the Cardinals finally put him on injured reserve in November.

"It was a freak thing and tough to deal with," Allen said. "It was a little scary and shook me a little bit. At the same time, everything happens for a reason and you can only control what you can control."

The year was "a big roller-coaster ride" for Allen, but he did what he could even off the field, watching the rest of the defensive line and noting pieces of the game he wanted to incorporate once he did return to the grass.

"Zach was a guy who showed promise and did a number of different things as an inside rusher and a guy who can get upfield," GM Steve Keim said. "It's a critical offseason for him to grow and develop in that weight room, get a little bigger, a little stronger, and see where he can take off."

Words like that are encouraging Allen, although his self-motivation after so much time off was already pushing him. What kind of offseason he really gets, however, is yet to be determined.

"I'm just trying to work my ass off and prove them right, because they did take a chance on me and I'm appreciative of that," he said. "You never want to be labeled as a disappointment.

"You want to be the guy. That's why you play the game, to be considered one of the best. I'm very appreciative of the praise, but I think -- even with a small sample size and it was just the beginning – I showed something when I played a little bit. For me, it's enough of the learning. No more excuses, no more of the rookie mistakes, this is, we have to start the career, no matter what happens. There's a sense of urgency."