"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.
Age: Golden: 25, Okafor: 25
Experience: Golden: 2nd season, Okafor: 4th season
Contract status: Golden: 2016-$890,530, 2017-$1,068,636, 2018-$1,246,742, Okafor: 2016-$1,789,607
2015 season quick review: The 2015 season marked Golden's rookie year in the NFL and the Missouri product had to navigate the difficulties of learning one of the most complex positions within the Cardinals' defensive scheme. While head coach Bruce Arians is often tentative to let rookies play early in the season, Golden proved he could handle the load and though he experienced some growing pains, Golden ultimately made six starts and recorded 4.0 sacks in an impressive rookie campaign. Okafor began the season atop the depth chart at outside linebacker coming off an 8.0 sack season in 2014, but underwhelmed last year as the Texas product posted just 2.0 sacks, suffered a toe injury and missed time due to an undisclosed off the field incident he has yet to detail publicly.
Projected roster status: After bursting onto the scene at a difficult position as a rookie, Golden has cemented his status as one of the Cardinals' key defensive players and is a lock for a roster spot in 2016. Okafor, meanwhile, has a more complicated situation. Although logic suggests the Cardinals need every ounce of veteran production they can get at a position that lacks the type of depth other spots on the roster have, Okafor didn't perform up to expectations in 2015 and could be surpassed on the depth chart by younger talent if training camp goes well. Okafor's fate is probably in his control at this point, as his salary is too low to keep him off the final roster if he earns a spot. However, if the Cardinals think players like Shaquille Riddick and Kareem Martin can perform at or above Okafor's level, the team could make a surprising decision and cut Okafor to save cap room. It's unlikely that scenario would unfold, but Okafor is somewhat of a wildcard in the race for an outside linebacker spot so it's a scenario worth mentioning.
Projected depth chart status: If Okafor returns to the level he played at in 2014, the depth chart could have an interesting look this season. Chandler Jones will start as the Cardinals' weak side outside linebacker, and with the way Golden performed and took hold of the strong side position in 2015, he stands to start as well. Still, Okafor and Golden will likely both remain strong side players within the Cardinals' scheme because of the speed and versatility the pair brings to the table, which means the Cardinals could get creative with how they deploy each player if Okafor is able to play at a high level. The Patriots were willing to use Jones as a defensive end at times and on some occasions, Jones even lined up as a tackle, so the Cardinals could conceivably put three outside linebackers on the field at once. All of this is assuming Okafor returns to form, which is still a big question mark. If he doesn't, expect the Cardinals to stick with Jones and Golden at the top of the depth chart, and for preseason camp to determine who falls in line behind them.
Position group analysis: As we've mentioned in previous pieces about the Cardinals' outside linebacker unit, there's only a handful of ways things can pan out for the players currently on the roster. Unless general manager Steve Keim feels the need to add a veteran free agent at the position (which wouldn't be a vote of confidence for players like Riddick and Martin), the players in this group should know what they're up against heading into fall camp. Jones and Golden have their roster spots solidified, and as a former third-round draft pick entering the all-important third year of his career, Martin should also receive the benefit of the doubt when final cuts roll around. The same logic doesn't apply, however, for Okafor, because his production fell in year three and because he missed time last season at a critical moment when he suffered an off-the-field injury. If Riddick and Martin play at a high level in camp, Okafor may find himself further down on the depth chart, which wouldn't be a nightmare for the organization considering the players passing him would be younger players and former team draft choices themselves. At outside linebacker, it's only seven players competing for what probably amounts to five spots, but the competition will remain intriguing nonetheless.
Moving forward: Golden's performance as a rookie wasn't All-Pro worthy or even close to that, but because of the potential he demonstrated, the Cardinals should and likely do view him as a long-term fit for the team's defensive scheme. Consider this: Bruce Arians rarely likes to play rookies in extended roles before Thanksgiving. Then consider the fact Golden was drafted to play the strong side outside linebacker position, which is one of the most difficult to learn and excel at within the Cardinals' scheme. Then consider the fact the Cardinals let Golden play extended time last year as an outside linebacker. All of that suggests the team is supremely confident in Golden's abilities and excited about the improvement and development he made over the course of last season. While Golden's 4.0 sacks may not stand out on a stat sheet, he's the type of player who can rush the passer on one down and cover a tight end on the next, which gives him instant value with a Cardinals' scheme that values versatility above all. As for Okafor, the Texas product was on a similar track to Golden, albeit it took him an extra year to recognize his potential. After an 8.0-sack campaign in 2014, Okafor was flying high entering last season, but couldn't string together another outstanding season and ultimately suffered a setback when he missed time due to an injury incurred off the field. It's impossible to tell how that impacts his status right now, but if Okafor falls behind younger players on the depth chart during camp, the organization may view him as expendable. Still, Okafor did demonstrate impressive potential in 2014, and the Cardinals know he'll be hungry entering a contract year, so the risk could very well be worth the reward.
Overall value: If Golden makes the second-year leap we're accustomed to seeing from players who prove they can handle the NFL workload during their rookie seasons, he stands to become one of the most valuable players on the Cardinals' roster. Key defensive players like Jones, Tyrann Mathieu and Calais Campbell aren't signed beyond the 2016 season, so Arizona needs dependable players at key positions who won't cost the team much money. Even though he'll make upward of $1 million annually, Golden represents a relative bargain for the franchise, especially if he creeps close to a Pro-Bowl level over the next few seasons. It's important to hit on early round draft picks, and as long as Golden continues along his current trajectory, Arizona will be satisfied with the value their 2015 second round pick can bring them. Much like Golden, Okafor holds quite a bit of value for the Cardinals as an organization because he was a fourth-round draft pick who has demonstrated in the past he can rush the passer effectively. The question remains whether the Cardinals will get the 2014 Okafor or the 2015 Okafor this season, and if he produces like the former, Arizona stands to benefit greatly from the value nearly every player in the position group provides.