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Rashard Lawrence, Leki Fotu Hope Drafting D-Line Unnecessary

Fourth-round picks in 2020 are examples of how teams need picks to develop

Defensive tackle Leki Fotu sacks Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts in a game last season as fellow defensive lineman Rashard Lawrence (92) closes in.
Defensive tackle Leki Fotu sacks Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts in a game last season as fellow defensive lineman Rashard Lawrence (92) closes in.

The Cardinals signed J.J. Watt, and they are hoping the second year for 2020 free-agent signee Jordan Phillips goes much better than the first.

But it's been suggested the Cardinals might want to consider a defensive lineman in this week's draft, and that hasn't gone unnoticed by the guys who are supposed to make that unnecessary.

"I've heard it a couple times, I guess," said Leki Fotu, one of two defensive linemen taken in the fourth round of the 2020 draft – Rashard Lawrence being the other.

"I know my reasons for being here, and Rashard too, there is a reason we came into this program. We work every day and ready to make our names for ourselves out here. To hear that (chatter) outside, I take it as motivation to work and be better than the way I was the day before."

Watt was the big signee of this year's free-agent class, and Phillips was high-profile too. But it's the rest of the defensive line room -- particularly Fotu, Lawrence, and 2019 third-round pick Zach Allen – that stand out this week as the Cardinals head into the draft.

The spotlight will be on the first-round pick, as always. It's the other draft picks that must be hit upon to build up the depth of a team – something that has been hit and miss over the years. For a team without a third- and fourth-round pick this year, having guys like Lawrence and Fotu (and Allen) form a defensive line foundation is crucial.

The pandemic wiped out rookie offseason work for Fotu and Lawrence, and chewed up any preseason games. The first time they got on the field last season in a game was the season opener in San Francisco, and the learning curve was steep. Lawrence also dealt with an injured ankle for a chunk of the season.

But, "I think the best part for me and Leki is that we played our best ball at the end of the year," Lawrence said.

The way the Cardinals play on the line, Lawrence and Fotu both fit inside. This is a draft, according to GM Steve Keim and others, that has some depth at outside linebacker/pass rusher. But on the interior spots – the spots where the Cardinals may have needed to beef up if they hadn't gotten Watt – it's not quite the same.

"It is what it is," NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. "It's the worst defensive tackle group that I've seen since I started in 2003."

(One mock draft did have the Cardinals selecting Alabama defensive tackle Christian Barmore at No. 16.)

Coach Kliff Kingsbury wasn't ruling out the possibility of adding to the position, draft or otherwise, but "we really like where it's at, particularly compared to the previous couple of seasons going into this draft."

Fotu and Lawrence, perhaps linked forever because of their draft status in the same round in the same year, see themselves as part of the solution. They both recall hearing from the Cardinals on draft day a year ago, time that seems at once forever ago and just the other day.

What they both do want is the chance to work on themselves and their game together this offseason, building on what they did as rookies in an environment that hopefully won't be quite as restrictive because of the pandemic.

If another defensive lineman comes in later this week, they get it. But they aren't giving up their place on the depth chart if they can help it.

"I take it as motivation," Lawrence said. "You understand it is a business though and the Cardinals are going to always look for the best available players.

"But for us, going into Year Two, it's about us showing we're going to be here for a long time in the future. We brought in a guy like J.J. who can help mentor us, so that'll be good for us. I think last year will be a good springboard for the two of us, and I think we'll have a good defensive line with the guys we have."

Some of the top defensive line prospects heading into the NFL draft

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