Current Roster Number: 8 (Markus Golden, Chandler Jones, Kareem Martin, Alex Okafor, Tristan Okpalaugo, Mike Reilly, Shaq Riddick, Zack Wagenmann)
Ideal Roster Number: 4-5
Returning Starters: 1.5 (Alex Okafor-1, Markus Golden-0.5)
Draft Need: Moderate Priority
Roster Composition: While the 3-4 defensive scheme allows the Cardinals to keep fewer defensive linemen than teams with a 4-3, the numbers even out when you consider the amount of outside linebackers Arizona must carry.
Last season, the Cardinals listed six players on their depth chart at outside linebacker for much of the year, and though not all six received significant playing time, they took up important space on the team’s 53-man roster.
In 2015 Alex Okafor started 13 games at weakside linebacker before an injury cut his year short, while Markus Golden began the Cardinals’ campaign as a rotational player before breaking into the lineup and starting six contests.
Both Okafor and Golden return to the Cardinals this season, but the team has added former New England Patriots’ sack artist Chandler Jones (12.5 sacks) to the fold via a mid-March trade.
Prior to the Jones trade, outside linebacker was a position of need for the Cardinals as the team’s leader in sacks last season, Dwight Freeney (8.0 sacks), is contemplating retirement.
Freeney is also at the point in his career where if the Cardinals did bring him back, he would be used almost exclusively on obvious passing downs.
The addition of an every-down presence in Jones buys the Cardinals valuable time to evaluate their outside linebacker unit and to determine whether Okafor’s dropoff in production last season was more than a fluke.
At the same time, the Cardinals can continue to monitor the progression of Golden, a 2015 second round draft pick, who showed flashes of strong play but was a bit green at times during his rookie campaign.
Golden is signed through the 2018 season, while Jones and Okafor have contracts that are set to expire at the end of the 2016 season. Jones could be a potential candidate for a franchise tag if the Cardinals like what they see, but this is a position the Cardinals could use a mid-round draft pick on to see if they can find value moving forward.
Outside of their top three outside linebackers, Arizona returns Kareem Martin and Shaquille Riddick, who are both draft picks of the Keim regime. Martin recorded nine tackles and 1.5 sacks last season while Riddick did not see game action in 2015.
Further down on the depth chart are Tristan Okpalaugo, Mike Reilly and Zack Wagenmann who all face uphill battles in hopes of making the 53-man roster. With a trio of players unlikely to be in the mix once fall camp concludes and a player in Riddick who doesn’t have NFL experience, the Cardinals’ perceived depth could still use a boost.
Arizona could receive a spark if Freeney elects to come back for the 2016 season, but even if he does, it’s possible the Cardinals will still use at least one draft pick on an outside linebacker.
A little over a month ago, the odds were in your favor if you had the Cardinals selecting an outside linebacker in the first two rounds of the draft. Now, with the addition of Jones, it’s unlikely we would see Arizona pull the trigger on a pass rusher in the first round of the draft.
Keim has a history of taking collegiate defensive ends with the goal of transitioning them within the Cardinals’ system to 3-4 outside linebackers, and it’s entirely possible he will try to do the same with at least one player this year.
If the Cardinals wait until the sixth or seventh rounds to add an outside linebacker, that player will face competition with the likes of Okpalaugo, Reilly and Wagenmann for a coveted roster spot.