Defensive line coach Ron Aiken (right) tutors end Calais Campbell during a recent organized team activity.
A year ago, Calais Campbell was maneuvering through the offseason trying to figure out the NFL life as a rookie, facing fellow backups on the offensive line when there were offense-versus-defense drills.
Now, he's a starter, facing fellow starters.
It wasn't anything Campbell necessarily did on the field – he probably made a greater impact on special teams last season than his limited time playing defense – but the business of the NFL that put him in the position. Antonio Smith, starting defensive end, left for a lucrative free-agent contract in Houston. That meant Campbell moved up the depth chart.
"It is one thing to say 'I'm a one,' but when you are on the field around the other guys in the huddle and you look around and they are counting on you, it definitely feels a little more important," Campbell said. "I have big shoes to fill, but it feels good to be in that huddle as a starter."
The Cardinals have no other spot in the lineup that will be more scrutinized than Campbell, who had 25 tackles and zero sacks as a rookie. Virtually all the other starting spots are either all but determined or manned by veterans who have had a certain level of success.
The same can't yet be said for Campbell, a second-round draft pick in 2008.
No defensive linemen were taken by the Cards in the draft. Only Rodney Leisle, who was out of football last season after being cut in training camp, was added as a free agent. Not only did Campbell rise up the depth chart when Smith left, it would seem he has limited competition to lose the spot.
Yet the first words from defensive coordinator Bill Davis on the subject are blunt: "It's not going to be given to Calais."
"If he wants it, Calais has to go take it and everyone else is fighting for it too," Davis said, emphasizing the true battle can't happen until training camp. "The OTAs and minicamp are a learning scenario for D-linemen and linebackers but you cannot evaluate them until they have pads on."
Leisle could play the end in the 3-4 alignment, Davis said, or Campbell's draft class mate Kenny Iwebema, or even veteran Bryan Robinson. Of course, Robinson remains the starter at nose tackle for now with Gabe Watson returning from knee surgery (and the Cards, right now, unable to count on Alan Branch until he proves he can be productive). Iwebema is recovering from surgery to remove a benign tumor from his chest.
Davis said the Cards will play a defensive scheme that will fit the players that have earned time and who are healthy. If it's one of the bigger guys, the Cards will use more "thick techniques." If it's Iwebema or Campbell, the Cards will use their ends more on the edge.
And, of course, the Cards are hoping Campbell takes a step forward and renders any contingency plans moot.
"People are paying more attention to me than last year, definitely," Campbell said. "But that's OK, I like attention. I have always said, 'When the lights come on, it's time to shine and perform.' I like pressure situations. I like all eyes on me, because I have no choice but to put on a show and play better."
Smith, a one-time fifth-round pick, needed a few seasons to become a difference-maker. Davis said Campbell doesn't necessarily need the same kind of patience.
"Calais is ready for his opportunity," Davis said. "He just has to meet the challenge, but he is ready for it."
Contact Darren Urban at firstname.lastname@example.org. Posted 6/13/09.