If Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim had one goal this offseason, he didn't keep that goal a secret.
With the 29th overall pick in the first round of the NFL Draft, Keim and head coach Bruce Arians selected defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche out of Ole Miss.
The selection of Nkemdiche, paired with the mid-March trade for pass-rushing specialist Chandler Jones, helped Keim deliver on his goal of adding instant firepower to the Cardinals' defensive front.
With veterans Calais Campbell and Frostee Rucker playing out the final seasons of their respective contracts, Keim also needed to add youth and give the Cardinals a long-term plan for the future of their defensive line unit.
The addition of Nkemdiche helps the Cardinals in many regards, especially considering he's just 21 years old and possesses the versatility to play nearly every position along the defensive line.
In the upcoming weeks, we'll do a deep dive into how the Cardinals rotate their defensive linemen with an All-22 film study, but for now, we know that Nkemdiche has the potential to become an impact player from day one because of his flexibility to play tackle and end in the 3-4 scheme.
- Nkemdiche has an elite first step off the ball, which makes him incredibly difficult to slow down as a pass rusher. Nkemdiche was consistently the first man into the backfield for Ole Miss, and quick reactions at the snap enabled him to bull rush defenders and use his impressive frame to his advantage.
- At 6-foot-4 and 296 pounds, Nkemdiche can overwhelm opponents with his rare combination of size and speed. Nkemdiche ran a 4.87 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, but his side-to-side movements are also impressive. In a 3-4 scheme, 5-technique defensive tackles need to be able to cut off cutback lanes for running backs and Nkemdiche demonstrated the ability to do that at Ole Miss.
- When Nkemdiche doesn't beat his opponents off the ball, he hasn't figured out how to maximize the leverage he can create with his size and speed. Nkemdiche has an outstanding initial burst, but players can't always rely on their first movements, especially in the pros. When Nkemdiche is facing elite athletes at tackle and guard in the NFL, he will need to do a better job of developing specific movements like rips or swims to keep offensive linemen guessing, or to sustain through a leveraged advantage.
- Nkemdiche has one of the strongest bull rushes of any lineman in the 2016 class, and that should be a given for a player who creates the type of force he generates. Nkemdiche did seem to rely on his bull rush more often than most high end Draft prospects we watched, and that makes him more predictable than other interior defenders. In the film we watched, Ole Miss rarely asked Nkemdiche to slant or stunt, and the Cardinals stunt quite frequently on the defensive line. This could become an advantage for Nkemdiche because stunting will allow him, in many cases, to generate more speed and power, which should subsequently blow offensive linemen back off the line of scrimmage. Ole Miss fell in love with Nkemdiche's ability to blow up plays with an effective first step, so his coaches rarely felt the need to ask Nkemdiche to stunt.
- Nkemdiche's biggest struggles come in the run game, especially when teams run right at him. His tendency to zone in on ball carriers is helpful when chasing plays down from the backside, but it hurts when Nkemdiche is trying to disengage from blocks. When Nkemdiche's eyes wander, his feet have a tendency to slow down, and he's too willing to remain engaged with blockers. In the run game, Nkemdiche needs to do a better job of driving his feet to create momentum and using his hands to separate himself from blockers. Nkemdiche will likely see more combo blocks in the Cardinals' 3-4 than he would in a 4-3 defense, but he gained valuable experience working against double teams at Ole Miss.
- Nkemdiche's outstanding speed is somewhat offset by the lack of an exceptional motor. One of the things we look for in defensive line evaluations is plays in which everything breaks down and quarterbacks roll outside the pocket to buy time. A defensive lineman's ability to chase down quarterbacks late in a play demonstrates relentlessness, desire and an ability to finish, and it's what often separates good players from great players. Nkemdiche should be an obvious candidate for a defensive lineman forcing the issue on quarterbacks on these type of plays, but he's simply not. When quarterbacks roll toward him, as Dak Prescott did on a number of occasions when Ole Miss played Mississippi State, Nkemdiche can make tackles. But when they're running in the opposite direction, he has too much of a tendency to be complacent.
- Nkemdiche's abilities, at least initially in his career, are best-suited to being A-gap or B-gap pass rusher. Even though he has the size to play in the C and D-gaps and take on offensive tackles, players who rush in those spots need to be able to redirect with precision and cover a larger amount of space in an equal amount of time. While Nkemdiche has the speed to develop into an elite rusher from the outside, his first step and bull rush are his best qualities and it's easier to capitalize on those qualities from the interior of the defensive line. Nkemdiche has the potential to disrupt the direction of inside zone running plays simply by blowing an offensive lineman into the backfield, and he can also keep offensive linemen off balance in the passing game and help collapse the pocket early in the play with those key skills.
The bottom line is Nkemdiche is a special talent and the Cardinals have the opportunity to find tremendous value with this pick because of his all-world athleticism. With the right mindset and more advanced technical coaching, Nkemdiche's ceiling is much higher than nearly every other defensive lineman in this year's draft class, and it will be fascinating to watch him develop in Arizona.