"Making the Cut"
As the Arizona Cardinals begin their quest to cut the team's roster size from 90 to 53 by the end of the preseason, we're taking a look at the key players at each position group and determining their odds of making the final cut.
Players: Tristan Okpalaugo, Zack Wagenmann
Age: Okpalaugo: 26, Wagenmann: 23
Experience: Okpalaugo: 1st NFL season, Wagenmann: 2nd NFL season
Contract status: Okpalaugo: 2016-$490,000, Wagenmann: 2016-$452,666, 2017-$617,668
2015 season quick review: A year after winning the Canadian Football League's Rookie of the Year award, Okpalaugo returned to the Toronto Argonauts and racked up an impressive 11.0 sacks and 29 tackles. Okpalaugo spent 2013 bouncing around from camp to camp in the NFL before ultimately finding a home up in Canada. After an impressive season that helped spur a playoff push for Toronto in 2015, Okpalaugo signed a futures contract with the Cardinals this offseason. Wagenmann came to the Cardinals last offseason as an undrafted free agent out of Montana, and he suffered a foot injury midway through training camp that left him on the injured reserve list last season. This offseason, Wagenmann suffered another foot injury, and he will begin the 2016 preseason on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list.
Projected roster status: Even though neither Okpalaugo or Wagenmann have any regular season NFL experience, each player has a decent chance of making the Cardinals' final roster because the team typically keeps as many as five outside linebackers in the fold. That bodes well for the duo because they are two of just seven outside linebackers who will start camp with Arizona, and four or five of those players have question marks surrounding their future with the organization. Because of Wagenmann's injury history and current status, we think Okpalaugo has the better chance of the two players to make the roster, especially because his stats in the CFL suggest he could become a sub-package specialist and perhaps help the team in third down or obvious passing situations.
Projected depth chart status: While there's not much clarity surrounding the second and third teams of the Cardinals' defensive depth chart heading into fall camp, if Okpalaugo or Wagenmann were to make Arizona's final roster this season, both players would be slotted behind the likes of starting outside backers Chandler Jones and Markus Golden. Wagenmann is the player more likely to slot behind Jones as a weak side linebacker, whereas Okpalaugo has the body type and footwork of a strong side linebacker. The primary difference in Okpalaugo and Wagenmann's skill sets is that Okpalaugo is lighter on his feet and could probably aid in pass coverage if needed while Wagenmann is more of a true edge rusher. If it came down to the Cardinals picking between the two players, Okpalaugo offers the team more versatility and is less of an injury risk.
Position group analysis: After finishing 20th in the NFL in sacks last season, the Cardinals needed to address their ability to impact the quarterback and they did so with the acquisition of Jones. Jones is entering the prime of his career, and while he represents an upgrade over Dwight Freeney, the Cardinals will still miss the veteran pass rusher who joined the team early in the season last year and ended up leading Arizona with 8.5 sacks. Aside from Jones and Golden, though, the Cardinals don't have much depth at outside linebacker. Alex Okafor is back in camp this season after missing the end of last season following an off-the-field incident Okafor has yet to address publicly. Okafor has the talent to help the Cardinals, but the incident has led to some uncertainty regarding his status with the team. The other outside linebackers in camp are Shaquille Riddick and Kareem Martin, and neither of those players have emphatically demonstrated they're superior options to Okpalaugo and Wagenmann, which means the competition for roster spots and playing time should be wide open.
Moving forward: One of the greatest votes of confidence the Cardinals gave their inexperienced outside linebackers this offseason was the team's decision not to bring in additional undrafted free agents to compete for roster spots during camp. The competition at outside linebacker will be interesting, but it likely won't be as hotly contested as the battle for a job at cornerback where as many as eight or nine players could be jostling for the final two roster spots at that position. It's probably too early to say whether this suggests the Cardinals are confident enough to move forward with players like Okpalaugo and Wagenmann into the future, but it does make it easier for both players to stand out in camp because they should receive more reps. Still, it's difficult for players on futures contracts to factor into an organization's long term plans in a meaningful way unless they demonstrate they deserve regular season playing time because a franchise has so many other roster concerns to take into consideration. Ultimately, if either player makes the team, we'll be able to reevaluate their standing with the franchise moving forward based on comments from Steve Keim and or Bruce Arians.
Key skill: Impacting the quarterback
There's a number of different skills outside linebackers must possess, but players further down on the depth chart are often afforded the opportunity to specialize in certain situations and one of those is obvious passing downs.
If either Okpalaugo or Wagenmann makes the roster, it's likely they would be considered long yardage or third down pass rushing specialists who could step in and give a player like Golden a breather. Both players have been touted for their pass rushing motors at different points during their careers, and Arizona is desperately hoping to improve on its ability to impact the quarterback this season.
The Cardinals were able to get by last season defensively because they had above average, and in some cases, elite talent at the back end of their defense, but the team was exposed in the NFC Championship game by Cam Newton.
Arizona has regrouped this offseason with the additions of Jones and first round draft choice Robert Nkemdiche, but the Cardinals will definitely be looking for players further down the depth chart to use their fresh legs to impact the passer.
Overall value: As we've discussed in prior "Making the cut" pieces, undrafted free agents and players on reserve/futures contracts have the potential to provide important value to a roster without subjecting a team to much risk. At this point in the year, the Cardinals need 90 players on the roster, and of course, some of those players are camp bodies. But a certain, albeit small, percentage of camp bodies turn into rostered players, and they end up costing the team just a nominal sum to keep around. The value of having a player like Okpalaugo or Wagenmann make the team for Arizona is important, because if either player can develop into a productive pass rusher, the team will have been able to allocate resources elsewhere to stay under the salary cap and ensure there's depth at each position. While it can cost a team greatly if a high round draft pick never pans out, it can also help a team immensely if a player who went undrafted develops into a contributor.