2016 in review: Markus Golden

Arizona Cardinals' pass rusher Markus Golden finished his second season in the NFL tied for third in the league in sacks with 12.5.

After finishing 20th in the NFL in sacks in 2015, the Arizona Cardinals felt they needed to make a move to address an apparent team weakness.

In the spring of 2016, general manager Steve Keim made one of the blockbuster moves of the offseason, trading Arizona's second round draft pick in exchange for New England Patriots' pass rusher Chandler Jones.

The move made waves around the NFL, as the 13-3 Cardinals were expected to become an instant threat to quarterbacks based on their ability to pair Jones with former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Calais Campbell.

As for the Cardinals' other outside linebacker position, second-year Missouri product Markus Golden was expected to have the edge over fourth-year veteran Alex Okafor heading into training camp, but Arizona still wanted to create competition at the position to help boost the team's pass rushing capabilities. 

Though it was Keim's decision to trade for Jones that will be credited as the difference-maker in the Cardinals' pressure capabilities in 2016, Keim's call to draft Golden in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft looked infinitely more impressive this season.

After posting 4.0 sacks during his rookie campaign, Golden broke out and became one of the league's dominant pass-rushers during his sophomore season, racking up 12.5 sacks and leading the Cardinals in the category.

While Jones received plenty of hype for his production, posting his third year with a double digit sack total in just six NFL seasons, Golden was every bit as impressive as the Cardinals' top acquisition in what turned out to be a breakout campaign.

Golden in 2016

For the rest of his career, Golden can hang his hat on the fact he finished third in the NFL in sacks in a given season, a year that happened to be just his second in league.

As far as up-and-coming pass rushers go, perhaps none have a brighter future than Golden, who possesses a tremendous combination of speed and physicality on the edge and plays with a nasty streak that's noticeable even to the naked eye.

But for as much promise as Golden has as a pass rusher, he should be commended just as much for the way he defended the run this season in Arizona.

While Jones was often a liability on the perimeter, allowing himself to be blocked on stretch and lead plays, Golden was among the most stout edge run defenders in the NFL, making play-after-play and forcing opponents to target the other side of the line of scrimmage.

When teams ran at Golden, he made himself an immovable wall, refusing to give up contain on the edge and funneling ball carriers back inside. When teams ran away from Golden, he demonstrated an impressive ability to pursue and track down plays from the backside, making it difficult for opponents to find cutback lanes.

Though Golden has a lot of room for improvement and can become more consistent against both the run and the pass, 2016 revealed a look at his sky-high ceiling, and it's one the Cardinals hope he continues to climb toward over the final two seasons of his rookie contract.

Golden in 2017

The Cardinals already plan on bringing Jones back to the fold in 2017, and will do so even if the team needs to exercise the franchise tag to keep Jones under contract.

What that means is that Jones will once again be considered the Cardinals' top pass rusher, and that Golden will likely be playing second fiddle for the second straight season.

However, if Golden puts together another 10-plus sack campaign, it will be impossible for Golden to stay off of the league's radar, as he will have forced himself into the discussion as one of the NFL's top pass rushers. 

If the Cardinals do wind up using the franchise tag on Jones, they'll hope Golden duplicates the success he found in 2016 so they can negotiate an extension with Golden and make him team's marquee pass rusher of the future.

With Jones' contract situation still undetermined, the Cardinals are in a tough position, because they know that Golden could become one of the league's top free agents if he's on the market after 2018. That makes signing Jones to a long-term extension a more difficult decision, and makes the franchise tag a more reasonable option.

Because paying two of the NFL's best pass rushers over the long haul isn't a truly reasonable option, Arizona finds itself in a tough predicament (albeit one most teams would like to have).

So if the Cardinals tag Jones and Golden establishes himself as one of the league's best young pass rushers in 2017, there's a much better chance it will be Golden, not Jones, who winds up shining for the organization in the long run. 

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