Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports

Arizona Cardinals' NFL Draft preview: Outside linebacker

Though it's unlikely the Cardinals would take an outside linebacker early in the NFL Draft, there are a handful of prospects the team may consider.

Position: Outside Linebacker

Draft Priority: Low to Moderate

The Skinny: Arizona set out to address its outside linebacker needs prior to the NFL Draft, and found a quality playmaker in Chandler Jones via a mid-March trade with New England.

Prior to the Jones trade, quite a few prominent mock drafts linked the Cardinals to edge defender prospects like Noah Spence of Eastern Kentucky and Emmanuel Ogbah of Oklahoma State.

Though the Cardinals’ current roster allows the team the luxury of drafting the best player available, it’s now unlikely Arizona would consider a pass rushing specialist in the first round.

With Jones on board, Arizona can look at drafting a center, defensive lineman or defensive back early in the draft and wait until day two or three to find an outside linebacker.

The Cardinals already have eight outside linebackers listed on their roster which means competition will be intense during fall camp, but the team’s recent draft history suggests general manager Steve Keim may still look at adding a piece in the later rounds.

Recent Draft History

Because Arizona has often transitioned defensive ends at the college level into outside linebackers in the professional ranks, it's possible the Cardinals could consider doing the same this season. Alex OkaforMarkus Golden and Shaquille Riddick all lined up at defensive end in college, but all three are outside linebackers within the Cardinals' 3-4 scheme.

The transition for these players isn't overly difficult, as many players listed as outside linebackers on the Cardinals' roster will not be asked to play in coverage within the team's scheme. The primary purpose of delineating a player (such as Jones) as an outside linebacker is to specify that a particular player will primarily rush from the edge, and not from the interior of the defensive line.

Golden was the team's second round pick in 2015, while Okafor was a fourth round pick back in 2013 in the first draft that Keim conducted. 

Evaluating how edge players transition to the NFL is a difficult process for scouts, and when you consider how often NFL talent evaluators miss on edge prospects, it's fair to say the Cardinals have been relatively successful at finding outside linebackers during Keim’s tenure.

Okafor has proven to be a valuable fourth round draft pick, while Golden showed promise during his rookie campaign and figures to make more strides this season. If Arizona can find a dependable rotational edge player with upside in the fourth round or later, it would give the team more flexibility with expiring contracts heading into next offseason.

Potential Early Selection

Noah Spence, Eastern Kentucky: If Arizona does elect to take the best player available regardless of need, Spence’s skillset lends itself to the Cardinals’ scheme. Spence is a pass rushing specialist who turned heads at the Senior Bowl with his edge rushing abilities, but like Robert Nkemdiche of Ole Miss, Spence has off the field concerns that could lead to a slide in the draft.

Potential Mid Round Selections

Jordan Jenkins, Georgia: The addition of Jones allows the Cardinals to look for an outside linebacker who fits the team’s scheme as a run-stopper, and Jenkins fits the bill. Jenkins may not fall past the third round, but he’s a dependable, consistent prospect who was solid throughout his career with Georgia.

Travis Feeney, Washington: Washington needed a linebacker to step up after the departure of current New Orleans Saints player Hau’oli Kikaha left for the NFL, and Feeney did so this season. Though some experts believe Feeney will become an inside linebacker at the next level, we think he’s a versatile value pick who the Cardinals could shift around.

Yannick Ngakoue, Maryland: Ngakoue is a classic example of a player who played defensive end throughout his career in college, but projects as an outside linebacker at the next level. At Maryland, he proved he could attack the quarterback as a pass rusher, but with his hand in the dirt, he didn’t do as well against the run.

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