The Cardinals' defense in 2015 could have -- but might not -- DT Dan Williams (92) and CB Antonio Cromartie (31), among others.
The Cardinals still do not have a defensive coordinator, although at some point Bruce Arians will make his decision – expected to be an internal hire – and also likely bring in a high-ranking assistant on the defensive side of the ball like he has on offense with Tom Moore.
The names can be thrown around (James Bettcher? Maybe Nick Rapone? Dick LeBeau as mentor?) but whomever is hired will end up with the same players with which to maneuver.
Injuries, free agency and perhaps the salary cap will impact who is coming, who is going and who will be playing defense for the new coordinator. The Cardinals are expected to retain the 3-4 base alignment, but as anyone who watches the NFL these days knows, the base alignment for any team is just a starting point and subject to dozens of different looks as the coordinator mixes-and-matches against the opponent.
A look across the defensive landscape, by position, to what Todd Bowles' replacement inherits:
This group, and probably the defense, starts with Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell. Campbell missed a couple of games with a knee injury and didn't play at 100 percent the rest of the season (he also dealt with a troublesome hip late in the year) yet still found time to dominate. The Cards got younger by drafting Ed Stinson and Kareem Martin, but Stinson's rookie year – which had gone well – was sidetracked by a toe injury that ultimately put him on injured reserve. Martin is a work-in-progress who couldn't do enough to get on the field and was often inactive. The Cards still have optimism in his development.
It's the veterans who are the big question marks going into the offseason, however. Defensive end Darnell Dockett wants very much to have a huge rebound season after tearing his ACL in training camp, but first the Cardinals have to decide if they can make his current $9.8 million salary cap number in 2015 work. Fellow end Frostee Rucker played well this season, but the Cards would rather have him play a support role than get as many snaps as he had down the stretch. Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, who admitted he was fatigued at the end of the season, is in the same boat.
The Cardinals need an anchor in the middle too. Dan Williams has been that guy, but he's a free agent who seems likely to at least test the free-agent water. Since his backup, Alameda Ta'amu, never found his way after tearing his ACL in the last game of 2013, nose tackle could end up being a big void.
The Cardinals and Bowles built their successes of the last two seasons on stopping the run. The Cards were great at that most of 2014 until wearing out and getting run over in the last three games, including the Wild Card playoff game. That starts up front.
It'd be nice if a player like, for instance, free-agent-to-be Justin Houston and his 20-plus sacks actually made it to market and was available. That'd be one way for the Cards to finally get a dynamic edge pass rusher into the lineup, something that has been absent basically since Bertrand Berry's salad days. But teams don't let players like that become available – Houston surely will get the franchise tag if a deal isn't worked out with the Chiefs – and you can definitely see a scenario where the Cardinals would seriously look at a pass rusher with their first-round draft pick.
Alex Okafor turned out to be solid and he accumulated eight sacks once he finally got healthy. That was a plus after the Cardinals lost John Abraham (concussion). Abraham, a free agent, probably is done. Matt Shaughnessy didn't look the same after missing two months with a knee injury, and he's a run-stopper first. Free agent Sam Acho could be back, but it would seem like the Cards would try to upgrade there. It's a crucial spot, one that will get a lot of the attention of General Manager Steve Keim.
The linebacking corps on the whole is under the microscope. Will Daryl Washington be brought back? (His suspension wouldn't end until late May as it is, plus he is still facing more potential penalties for his assault conviction.) Will Larry Foote retire, and if he doesn't, do the Cards get him back? Will Kevin Minter be able to finally make the jump the team so desperately needs him to make? The Cardinals hope Glenn Carson or Kenny Demens can develop but the reality is that Keim should end up making this an important position for free agency or the draft. Even if Foote comes back, the Cardinals don't want him to have to play nearly as much as he did.
Washington is the wild card in the scenario. He is (was) good enough to create a lot for the defense. Assuming he could return and play at a high level, it would free up the Cardinals to do other things in their offseason defensive build. If he isn't going to be part of things, the new defensive coordinator's job got that much more difficult.
The Cardinals have depth here, especially with a bevy of safeties – assuming Deone Bucannon will move back to playing safety next season after a rookie year as a nickel linebacker. Tyrann Mathieu will be back to full health. The hope is that cornerback Patrick Peterson, after an uneven season, will make another push toward being consistently one of the best cornerbacks in the game.
The Cardinals do have to figure out if they can retain free-agent cornerback Antonio Cromartie, but even if Cromartie leaves, there is confidence that Justin Bethel has been moving toward his time to play the position. Jerraud Powers remains a steady player, although he probably is best suited in the slot. It would make sense if the Cardinals gave serious consideration to drafting a cornerback. Mathieu can help in cover situations too. With Bucannon and Mathieu joining veterans Rashad Johnson and Tony Jefferson, safety might be the one position the Cards don't bother thinking about at all this offseason.