Defensive end Calais Campbell (93) celebrates a sack against the Cowboys with teammates Alan Branch (left) and Darnell Dockett.
When nose tackle Dan Williams was drafted last year, the Cardinals suddenly had a three-pack of young players on the defensive line that could anchor the Cards for years.
At least, that was the potential.
Their growth wasn't complete, however. Williams had the normal learning curve of a rookie. Defensive end Calais Campbell didn't quite take the step forward that everyone expected in his third season, although his statistics were OK. On the other side, Darnell Dockett learned what multiple Pro Bowl appearances and a giant contract extension get – even more attention from the other team.
There is little question the Dockett-Campbell-Williams triumvirate could still be just as impressive of a front line in new defensive coordinator Ray Horton's 3-4 defense as everyone once hoped. Any good defensive line is about depth, however, and the ability to rotate fresh legs in the game to hold up to the pounding.
Questions remain about the depth, because beyond the three starters, officially there is no depth as of right now. The rest of 2010's defensive line – Alan Branch, Gabe Watson, Bryan Robinson and Kenny Iwebema – have expiring contracts. Robinson could retire, although he didn't close the door to returning. Branch is wanted back, although he could have suitors after playing his best season as a pro last year. The Cards did draft UCLA defensive end David Carter in the sixth round, but the Cards figure to want to have solid veterans higher up the depth chart.
Still, it'll come down to the play of Williams, Dockett and Campbell for the direction the unit heads this season. Williams was playing much more often late in the season, and his play clearly improved over the final month as the Tennessee product flashed the talent that made him valuable coming out of college.
Dockett wasn't as spectacular as the season before – in 2010, he had five sacks, three fumble recoveries and 11 quarterback hits along with 51 total tackles – and the losing last season appeared to take a toll on him. The Cards need him to be a consistent disruptor every week.
Campbell had six sacks and his 64 tackles were a defensive line-best, and his numbers were similar to 2009. But coach Ken Whisenhunt remarked multiple times about Campbell's need to be more consistent, an issue Campbell himself acknowledged. Branch took some of Campbell's playing time at one point.
With consistency from all three starters, the Cardinals should be set on the line, important since Horton figures to be sorting through his linebacking corps through training camp.
KEY PLAYER IN 2011: Dan Williams. As important as it is to have Campbell surge, Williams was the guy drafted to be the immovable object in the middle of the defense – and a good nose tackle is a must in any good 3-4 setup.
CONSIDER THIS: If the Cards can find a breakout pass rusher for the right outside linebacker spot (O'Brien Schofield?) Dockett will only benefit. Playing on the right side, teams can focus more of their blocking scheme on Dockett since the Cards have had a hard time getting a dynamic rush off the edge.
ROSTER CHANGE CHANCES ON 1-10 SCALE: About a 5. It'll all depend on the Cards' own free agents. If guys like Branch and Robinson are willing to return, the Cards may be willing to work with that. If someone like Branch, for instance, gets a big offer elsewhere, the Cards will have to delve into free agency to create depth.
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