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Seeking The 'Nasty' On The Defensive Line Important For Cardinals

Finding impact defensive lineman crucial with position in flux

Cardinals defensive lineman Dante Stills hits Bears quarterback Justin Fields during a game last season.
Cardinals defensive lineman Dante Stills hits Bears quarterback Justin Fields during a game last season.

INDIANAPOLIS – The Cardinals defensive line had to lean upon, among others this past season, a rookie sixth-round pick who admitted he was in tears during last year's draft when he wasn't getting picked.

"I thought I could come in and contribute," Dante Stills said after the season. "It wasn't perfect. Overall, I wished to prove people wrong. I was our last pick last year and I was a mess through the whole draft. This offseason is the biggest offseason of my life.

"I'm going to be a whole different Dante."

Whether Stills becomes a new Dante will play out over the offseason. Whether Stills is part of a whole new defensive line is under advisement as well.

Four of the Cardinals' top linemen going into the season are free agents. Of their edge rushers, only Dennis Gardeck reached five (six all told) and the team struggled both against the run or sacking the quarterback most of the season. (Stills led the defensive linemen with 3½ sacks.)

Both interior defensive linemen and edge rushers figure to be spotlighted in the Cardinals' draft prep. On the line itself, talent and numbers are both needed. And while the sexy talk of the first-round centers around receivers, tackles and cornerbacks, up front defensively can't be an afterthought.

"I feel like this draft class is the best of the best," said Oregon defensive lineman Brandon Dorlus, who happens to be one of those players who seemingly would fit with how the Cardinals like to move around their linemen. "The defensive line is the best group, and teams are going to get some good guys."

The Super Bowl highlighted Chris Jones of the Chiefs. The Cardinals have seen twice a season for too many seasons the greatness of Aaron Donald.

The Cardinals tried to piece together, after Zach Allen left as a free agent and J.J. Watt retired, a new defensive line. It wasn't enough, and was undercut often by injuries. All four of the aforementioned free agents – L.J. Collier, Carlos Watkins, Leki Fotu, Jonathan Ledbetter – missed time with injuries. Collier and Watkins missed almost the whole season. So merely making sure there are numbers around a player like Stills is crucial.

But finding a star – or at least a potential star – would change the tenor of the defense and would figure to have a trickle-down effect throughout the unit.

"Every draft is different, there are free agents out there who have shown they can wreck games," Cardinals coach Jonathan Gannon said. "That's a premium position for a reason. Is he run defender, is he a pass defender? Those guys are guys that can do both at a high level. That's what you're looking for. And I'm also looking for a guy who can align in different spots.

"Versatility is a word I use for defensive linemen. Game wreckers typically can."

Over the years, edge rushers have been considered more of a premium position, and since the departures of Chandler Jones and Haason Reddick, the Cardinals have a need there too. BJ Ojulari had flashes as a second-round pick (four sacks) but the Cards could use their second first-round pick or their early second-round selection on a Jared Verse or Chris Braswell, perhaps.

But up front, where the Cardinals need to get more stout, there are names to choose from, whether it is a second Byron Murphy (II, from Texas) or Florida State's Braden Fiske or even Dorlus.

"You gotta be nasty, you gotta be tough, you gotta be smart for sure to be a three-down lineman," Dorlus said.