Following a 13-3 season and an appearance in the NFC Championship game, the Arizona Cardinals entered the 2016 offseason with the core pieces of one of the NFL's most talented rosters still intact.
Arizona planned to return every key skill position player, had two star playmakers in the defensive backfield, Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu, under contract through 2017, and a strong front seven at its disposal.
So when the Cardinals were on the clock with the 29th overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft, Arizona was one of the few teams that could afford to take a chance on controversial Ole Miss defensive end Robert Nkemdiche.
Considered a potential top-10, or perhaps even a top-5 talent in the draft, Nkemdiche slipped all the way to the Cardinals because of significant character concerns regarding his motor, maturity, and marijuana use.
However, after taking a chance on one of the draft's top talents, Mathieu, a few seasons earlier, the Cardinals were confident enough that the culture around their locker room could help keep Nkemdiche on the right track. So general manager Steve Keim pulled the trigger.
"We're extremely excited about the 29th overall selection for us, Robert Nkemdiche," 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."
When Nkemdiche showed up to the Cardinals' first rookie camp of the offseason, he drew rave reviews for his speed and movement skills, and looked every bit the part of the player Arizona thought was an end-of-the-first-round steal.
However, the Cardinals would soon learn, all that glitters isn't gold.
Nkemdiche in 2016
When training camp began at the end of July, Nkemdiche wasn't with the rest of the Cardinals' draft picks on the field. Instead, the first round selection was nursing an ankle injury suffered during a summer rookie camp that ultimately caused him to miss the first two weeks of camp.
By the time Nkemdiche was ready to take the field, he showcased immediate, clear potential as a pass-rusher, but wasn't consistent enough during camp to merit consideration for significant playing time.
Even though Nkemdiche likely could have filled a role as a rotational pass-rusher, perhaps on obvious passing downs, Cardinals' head coach Bruce Arians kept him out of the lineup early in the season, asserting that the rookie wasn't consistently living up to the expectations of the team's coaching staff.
Additionally, the ankle issues that troubled Nkemdiche at the beginning of training camp continued to plague him at the outset of the regular season, and provided another setback in a developmental pattern that began to grow worrisome for Arizona.
Eventually, Nkemdiche became a regular on the Cardinals' inactive list, a foreboding sign for any rookie, but especially one that entered the NFL with character concerns like Nkemdiche's.
After weeks of wearing sweatpants on the sidelines, though, Nkemdiche finally began to earn playing time toward the end of the regular season, as the Cardinals' faded from playoff contention. Much like 2015 first round draft choice D.J. Humphries who spent a considerable amount of his rookie season in Arians' doghouse before climbing out at the end of the year, Nkemdiche had followed the same script.
While Nkemdiche did make appearances in a few Cardinals' games at the end of the season, he finished a disappointing rookie campaign with just one tackle and five games played.
Nkemdiche in 2017
After sitting out the entirety of his rookie season, Humphries began his second-year in the NFL as the Cardinals' starter at right tackle, and made impressive strides that should make him a foundational piece of Arizona's offensive line for years to come.
While Nkemdiche didn't sit for all of his rookie campaign, he was inactive for most it. Still, like Humphries, he could be in line for a starting role in 2017, especially if the Cardinals allow Calais Campbell to walk in free agency.
Arizona would be taking a massive risk letting Campbell, a nine-year NFL veteran and a team leader, move on, but Nkemdiche has the rare combination of size and speed to make up for Campbell's loss.
The gamble would be undoubtedly large, but the Cardinals have a much cheaper option in Nkemdiche who could be ready to take a huge step forward in 2017. If the Cardinals place their faith in Nkemdiche and he delivers, the team will have plenty of salary cap room to add key free agents at positions of need, which in turn will make the Cardinals a stronger contender this season.
Nkemdiche's development could wind up being the main piece to Arizona's puzzle, and how the front office deals with the defensive line this offseason will provide a strong indication of the type of faith it has in him.