The Arizona Cardinals entered the 2016 NFL Draft with a handful of routes it could take with their first round pick, and team management opted to use its selection on a player who could provide immediate help up on the defensive line.
By the time the Cardinals were on the clock with the 29th pick, plenty of talented defensive linemen were left on the board, but perhaps no players possessed the same raw potential as Robert Nkemdiche out of Ole Miss.
"We're extremely excited about the 29th overall selection for us, Robert Nkemdiche," general manager Steve Keim said. "A guy that we had rated extremely high, from a talent perspective, he has tremendous skills. Height, weight, speed, rare movement, tremendous flexibility for a big man."
Widely regarded as one of the top ten players in the draft, Nkemdiche's stock dipped in large part due to a December arrest for pot possession. However, general manager Steve Keim said at a press conference following Thursday evening's draft that the organization felt the incident was behind Nkemdiche, and the reward in drafting an athlete of his stature late in the first round was too tempting to pass up.
"To have a guy who came out of high school as the No. 1 recruit in the country, and went to Ole Miss and had the success that he had, again, relating to that incident, to be able to get him where we got him, we were fortunate I feel like," Keim said.
Why He Fits
On Friday morning, we released a detailed film evaluation after watching Nkemdiche's tape, and determined the 6-foot-4, 296-pound defensive linemen has the versatility to become an every-down lineman for the Cardinals in the future.
At least initially, Nkemdiche is best suited to help the Cardinals as an A-gap and B-gap defender, because of a powerful first step and an exceptional bull rush that we considered one of the best of any lineman we watched in the 2016 draft class.
Head coach Bruce Arians hinted that Nkemdiche may initially start off as an A-gap and B-gap defender because of the mismatches he creates with guards and centers, but hinted at the new addition's ability to go head-to-head with offensive tackles.
"Really, he has been effective everywhere," Arians said. "He's a nightmare for a guard and center. He can work a tackle off the edge. The thing he brings is such a powerful inside rusher that runs good stunts in games, I like our group of pass rushers right now tremendously."
Arians mentioned the potential Nkemdiche brings as a stunting lineman against the run, and Nkemdiche's development in this regard, especially in fall camp, will be critical to his overall success during his rookie season.
The Cardinals run far more stunts along their defensive front than Nkemdiche's teams ran at Ole Miss, and we thought Nkemdiche was somewhat limited in what he was asked to do at the college level because his coaching staff knew how effective his first step was in creating penetration at the snap.
Nkemdiche was a better pass rusher than run stopper at the college level, and some of his most significant struggles came at times when teams ran directly at him. This is a result of Nkemdiche's inability to effectively disengage with offensive linemen if he doesn't create leverage immediately off the ball, and it's a skill Nkemdiche will have to improve upon if he wants to see the field on more than just sub packages and obvious passing downs as a rookie.
We believe that receiving more technical coaching will help Nkemdiche refine his skills and help him use his hands to shed blockers faster, and that's why he's a great fit for the Cardinals' scheme. Keim said Nkemdiche already has the raw physical tools and the burst to be an outstanding player in the NFL, and the expectation is that the Cardinals coaching staff will help mold him into a more complete interior defender.
"The physical tools, I mean, he has rare upside for the position," Keim said. "I think he vertical jumped 35 inches, he's 300 pounds, he ran a 4.8 and like coach said, with his ability to create penetration with quickness, he's violent. In this scheme, with this coaching staff, with our locker room, we have high expectations for him."
If Arizona's coaching staff can take advantage of Nkemdiche's rare qualities and expand his arsenal of moves against the run, his versatility makes him an obvious candidate to be one of the most effective linemen on the team within his first few seasons with the franchise.
How He Projects
Under Keim, the Cardinals have rarely added any defensive players that don't have schematic flexibility. If you examine some of the key players on the team's defense, Calais Campbell, Deone Bucannon and Tyrann Mathieu are all examples of players who fill multiple roles on a game-by-game and series-by-series basis.
For comparison's sake, the role Campbell fills is one that the Cardinals hope Nkemdiche will one day be able to assume. Though Campbell and Nkemdiche have different styles of play, Campbell can play all three positions on the defensive front and rotate throughout the game.
While Campbell lines up at defensive end in the team's 3-4 scheme most frequently, he is often asked to stunt through the heart of the offensive line and will sometimes line up in a 0-technique over the center when the team asks him to. Campbell is a often a two-gap player for the Cardinals, even when they blitz, and has demonstrated the ability to rush the passer from a 5-technique position against offensive tackles.
What the Cardinals have asked Campbell to do over the years is to maximize the team's flexibility by aligning him as a 0-technique, a 3-technique and as a 5-technique to keep offensive linemen off balance and to allow the team to become more creative with its blitz packages.
The goal of course, is for Nkemdiche to provide the team with the same type of flexibility, and the organization's selection was made with this concept in mind.
"Not only is he a guy that we think can be a tremendous player, but he has great schematic flexibility," Keim said. "He has the ability to bounce anywhere across the defensive line, and in fact, in certain situations, he can bounce outside and rush the passer, so he's a guy that we're extremely excited about."
The timing of Nkemdiche's selection was optimal for the player and the team, because Nkemdiche has some skills (e.g. first step, bull rush) that make him a near guarantee to crack the Cardinals' rotation this season. Furthermore, Nkemdiche has the ability to develop behind veterans like Campbell and Rucker, and he enters the organization at a time when all three starters return along the defensive line.
With Campbell and Rucker playing out the final year of their contracts, the team can monitor the progression of Nkemdiche and add to his skill set through practice and film study without needing to rely on him for too much production from day one. This draft choice allows the Cardinals to be selective with how they deploy Nkemdiche in year one, and so long as he develops as expected, he will have time to morph into a more consistent, every-down player by year two.
Using a first round draft choice on a player with noted off the field incidents like Nkemdiche has a significant amount of risk involved in it, but the Cardinals are in a position as a franchise to take this risk in hopes of maximizing the reward. Coming off a 13-win season and needing to add a piece on the defensive line that creates stability for the future, Arizona could have hit the jackpot at the end of the first round, and that's exactly why Keim and Arians spent so much time getting to know their newest addition throughout the draft process.
There are multiple reasons why a player with Nkemdiche's talent level fell to the Cardinals in the 29th slot, and not all of them are off the field issues. There's certainly great concern that a player who was suspended for his final collegiate game due to an arrest for pot possession won't be able to turn things around, but there's also concern regarding Nkemdiche's on the field performance.
A player of Nkemdiche's size and athleticism should have no problem racking up sacks at the college level and finishing plays because he was typically the best athlete on the field. But throughout his career, Nkemdiche's production never quite maximized his freakish abilities and he didn't live up to the label of being the No. 1 overall recruit coming out of high school.
The combination of Nkemdiche's off the field concerns, which the Cardinals addressed as an isolated incident, as well as concerns about his motor and ability to finish plays played a significant factor in his draft stock. There are organizations that simply couldn't take a chance on a player like Nkemdiche because the first round is about finding safe bets and locks, and Nkemdiche doesn't have the cleanest history.
Though there's always the possibility Nkemdiche becomes a bust, the Cardinals maintained that they vetted Nkemdiche more thoroughly than any other player in the draft class. Keim and Arians both expressed confidence in Nkemdiche as a person and as a player, and emphasized the importance of the role the organization plays in keeping players on the straight and narrow.
For an organization that has made a name for itself because of the chance it took on Mathieu, it also couldn't keep veteran linebacker Daryl Washington on the right path as Washington was suspended indefinitely for multiple violations of the league's substance-abuse policy.
Nevertheless, the Cardinals are confident in their culture, and found themselves in a position to grant yet another draft pick a second chance.
"He (Nkemdiche) is a guy that we spent more time in person with than anyone else in this draft class," Keim said. "We visited him in Indy (Indianapolis), we visited him on his campus, he came here and visited with us, spent time with everybody on our staff. He's a guy that we feel we've gotten to know extremely well."