Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports

Arizona Cardinals NFL Draft preview: Defensive line

The Arizona Cardinals have an opportunity to add a key piece of depth along the defensive line through the draft.

Position: Defensive Line

Draft Need: Moderate to High Priority

The Skinny: Arizona already has eight defensive linemen on its current roster heading into the draft, with the Cardinals likely to keep eight to nine defensive linemen on their 53-man roster this fall.

However, the Cardinals’ need for a young, talented defensive linemen is pressing, especially after a season in which the team struggled rushing the quarterback and finished 20th in the NFL in sacks.

General manager Steve Keim began addressing the need in mid-March with a trade for New England Patriots’ outside linebacker Chandler Jones, but the Cardinals still have a pair of defensive linemen in Calais Campbell and Frostee Rucker whose contracts are set to expire at the conclusion of the 2016 season.

Jones ranked 5th in the NFL with 12.5 sacks last season, and the addition of a versatile defensive linemen who can pair with him to hunt the quarterback and clog up run gaps could be a game-changer for the Cardinals’ defense. 

It wouldn’t come as a surprise to see the Cardinals pursue a 3-4 defensive end with their first round pick (29th overall), but if Alabama center Ryan Kelly or a high-profile defensive back is still on the board, Keim and Co. could select Kelly and wait until the third round or even later in an attempt to find a diamond in the rough.

Recent Draft History

Keim took over as general manager in January of 2013, which means the 2016 draft will be Keim’s fourth season leading the Cardinals’ war room. Head coach Bruce Arians has been alongside Keim with every step of the way, so the best way to evaluate who the Cardinals might select is looking at the team’s trends within the past three drafts.

Because of the longevity of certain players like Campbell and Rucker, the team has not been forced to draft a defensive linemen early in the draft, but Arizona has taken chances on players like Markus Golden who were labeled as defensive ends in college and converted to outside linebacker in the Cardinals’ 3-4 scheme.

Here’s a look at players who were considered defensive tackles or defensive ends in college that the Cardinals have drafted under Keim and Arians.

  • Markus Golden: Selected in the second round out of Missouri in 2015 (Converted to OLB)
  • Rodney Gunter: Selected in the fourth round out of Delaware State in 2015
  • Shaq Riddick: Selected in the fifth round out of West Virginia in 2015 (Converted to OLB)
  • Kareem Martin: Selected in the third round out of North Carolina in 2014 (Converted to OLB)
  • Ed Stinson: Selected in the fifth round of of Alabama in 2014
  • Alex Okafor: Selected in the fourth round out of Texas in 2013 (Converted to OLB)

The Cardinals have a relatively strong history of hitting on these targets under their current regime, but there isn’t a great enough sample size to know how well Arizona has evaluated defensive linemen coming directly out of college into the 3-4 scheme.

With that being said, Arizona’s ability to select pass rushers with promise like Golden and Okafor indicates the team could be willing to take a defensive linemen early in the draft.

Potential First Round Selections

Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: Nkemdiche is a player who has been linked to the Cardinals in a variety of mock drafts, and on talent alone, could be considered a steal at the end of the first round. However, he was charged with pot possession in December after falling at a hotel and is viewed by many as a character risk. Nkemdiche excels against the pass, is questionable against the run, and might be worth trading back to snag.

Jonathan BullardFlorida: Bullard is viewed by many as a better fit for a 4-3 defense, but we included him because he has a reputation as a smart player with good play recognition abilities, which is a quality the Cardinals look for in players. If you look at Arizona’s defense, many players like Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu have excellent instincts, and Bullard fits the bill in that regard.

Sheldon DayNotre Dame: Day probably isn’t worth a first round selection, but if the Cardinals do trade back, he could be a good fit if Arizona is looking to groom a lineman behind Campbell or Rucker. Day is fast off the football, can shut down a gap, and could develop well.

**Other Considerations: Kevin Dodd (Clemson), Emmanuel Ogbah (Oklahoma State)

Potential Third Round Selections

Kenny Clark, UCLA: If we were in the Cardinals’ situation, we’d pass on taking a defensive lineman in the first round and try to snag Clark, even if that means trading up from the third round. We loved Clark’s college film at UCLA, and think he can transition to the outside of a 3-4 defense and become a dynamic pass rusher. In a class deep with interior linemen, address another need first, and do what you can to find a playmaker like Clark.

Dean LowryNorthwestern: Lowry is a true defensive end who fits a 3-4 scheme, and comes from a program that owned one of the best defenses in college football for much of last season. What separates Lowry from other players at this point in the draft is his versatility, as Northwestern used him all over the defensive line and the Cardinals could use a linemen who they could plug and play in different sub packages.

Potential Late Round Pick

Lawrence Thomas, Michigan State: When we talk late round picks, we’ll almost exclusively highlight players from the BCS level we’ve seen on film. Thomas is a player who certainly received good coaching in a Michigan State program that has been churning out NFL talent, and we felt he was one of the few bright spots for the Spartans in their loss against Alabama this season.


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