Any team that operates a 3-4 defensive scheme knows the significance of having top-flight edge rushers, and after recording underwhelming pass rushing statistics a season ago, Arizona Cardinals' general manager Steve Keim made a bold move.
Keim flipped starting right guard Jonathan Cooper and the team's 2016 second round draft pick to New England in exchange for pass-rushing specialist Chandler Jones. Trading with the Patriots is a risky venture for most NFL franchises, but the Cardinals are convinced they ended up on the right side of the deal because of the instant impact Jones can bring to a defense that needs to improve its pressure capabilities.
The Cardinals finished 20th in the league in sacks last year and lost top pass rusher Dwight Freeney to free agency this offseason, so even though Jones only has one year left on his contract, Keim knew he had to swing for the fences.
The former first round draft pick had 12.5 sacks a season ago, and now that he's paired on the same side of the defensive front as Pro Bowler Calais Campbell, the Cardinals believe Jones' production could skyrocket even further.
Chandler Jones: The hype surrounding Jones' pass-rushing skills has reached a point where double digit sacks is the expectation for the new Cardinal, and if he doesn't reach that benchmark, it will feel like a letdown for folks inside the organization. Of course, there's much more that goes into the role of playing outside linebacker, but the Cardinals have put such an emphasis on Jones' ability to impact the quarterback that many players have suggested 20 sacks isn't out of the question. We're less bullish on Jones than most Cardinals' personnel, especially because he's not a stout run defender. Jones has flashed the ability to dominate as an edge defender, but his lane integrity is somewhat questionable and offensive tackles have proven they can move him off the line of scrimmage from time-to-time. Of course, the Cardinals won't bat an eye at his run-stopping abilities if Jones puts up a lofty sack total.
Markus Golden: Arizona's second round draft pick from a season ago, Golden has the potential to be one of the most improved players on the Cardinals' roster this season. After notching 4.0 sacks and six starts as a rookie, Golden surpassed Alex Okafor on the depth chart as Arizona's No. 2 pass rusher. The Missouri product is stout against the run, relentless against the pass, and excellent at holding outside contain. Golden's skills as a perimeter defender are integral to the Cardinals' success against the run, and a Pro Bowl-caliber season from Golden on the edge could turn Arizona into one of the top defenses in the league. Golden has a ways to go to reach his potential, but his explosive first step and above average quick-twitch movements give him a high ceiling to work with.
Alex Okafor: It's a contract year for Okafor which should mean the Texas product who once racked up 8.0 sacks in a season should be in for a big year. However, for the second time in his career, Okafor suffered a torn bicep that threatened to keep him out for the entire season. After weighing his options, Okafor elected to play through the pain, but it remains to be seen how effective he'll be with the limitation. Okafor's desire to perform and contribute is at an all-time high, but bicep injuries are especially challenging for players who make their living at or close to the line of scrimmage because of the importance of creating and maintaining leverage.
Kareem Martin: The Shaquille Riddick experiment was put on hold for the Cardinals as they signed the former West Virginia defensive end to the practice squad and moved forward with the rangy Martin. At 6-foot-6 and 272 pounds, Martin has a beautiful frame for a pass rusher, and things began to click for him during the preseason. Martin consistently gave the Cardinals' offensive tackles fits during training camp, and also showed well during preseason competitions. Martin suffered a knee injury at the end of the preseason that will cause him to miss the early part of the regular season, but if his development continues, he could materialize into an important sub-package pass rusher whose length and versatility gives opposing offensive tackles problems.