Can the Arizona Cardinals defensive line play better than expected in 2023?

Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman Dante Stills (98) practices in the Cardinals rookie minicamp in
Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman Dante Stills (98) practices in the Cardinals rookie minicamp in / Mingson Lau/The Republic / USA TODAY

The consensus states that the Arizona Cardinals have such an abysmal defensive line, they will be one of the worst units in the league in 2023.

When you take one look at the Arizona Cardinals defensive line, it would be hard not to laugh if someone thought they could be even remotely productive. In fact, they’re so bleak on paper that when I ranked the Redbirds line a few days back, I determined role player Carlos Watkins was their greatest asset

However, something I didn’t mention is that I separated defensive linemen from edge rushers in those rankings. The edge rushers, in the 3-4 alignment the Cardinals still look as though they still possess, would play outside linebacker, so I refrained from referring to them as defensive linemen. 

But if the Cards surprise us and go with predominantly a 4-3 look, that can change things. Most if not all players mentioned in my defensive line rankings would kick inside to play interior defensive line, bringing the edge rushers into the unit. 

Arizona Cardinals defensive line could be better in a 4-3 alignment

In a 4-3 defense, Zaven Collins, B.J. Ojulari, Cameron Thomas, and Myjai Sanders all have enough bulk to put their hand in the grass to play on the line. Each stands between 6’3 and 6’5, and they all weigh between 250 lb and 280 lb. You also can’t count out Victor Dimukeje, Jesse Luketa, and even Dennis Gardeck, though the latter is undersized to play too much end. 

Collins, as we know, has proven himself at stopping the run as a linebacker. And although he will face a learning curve during training camp and the preseason, his nose for locating and pursuing the ball carrier shouldn’t change. Thomas and Sanders logged a combined 41 stops in 495 snaps in 2022, and they’ve also taken opposing players down behind the line six times, so the pair is capable of producing. 

The question, though, is who will plug up the middle? We already mentioned Watkins has done a good job as a rotational player in previous stops. But don’t forget, L.J. Collier is a former first round pick, and it would be premature to write him off as a complete bust before we see whether a change of scenery boosts his production. 

There is also Leki Fotu. Fotu is a better fit for a 3-4 nose tackle, but even in a 4-3 system, he has the size to take on double teams, which should leave room for the likes of Kyzir White and Krys Barnes to converge should teams try to run the ball up the middle. Finally, we have the unknown commodity in Dante Stills, who, if the likes of Watkins, Collier, and Fotu can’t get it done, can potentially show us that he can be effective in the rotation.

Overall, the defensive line looks bleak on paper. But if the Arizona Cardinals instead went with a 4-3 base, which would often mean a lot of 4-2-5 looks, their line could perform better than previously thought. Once training camp rolls around, we will get a better idea of what kind of defense head coach Jonathan Gannon and defensive coordinator Nick Rallis are looking to run.

Source: Arizona Cardinals coaches have their hands full shaping defensive line by Tom Kuebel,

(Statistics provided by Pro-Football-Reference)