An NFL career is full of ups and downs, but few Cardinals' players have endured the roller coaster ride outside linebacker Alex Okafor has experienced during his four seasons in the league.
After playing in just one game as a rookie in 2013, Okafor took the NFC Wets by storm during his second-year in the NFL, racking up a career-high 8.0 sacks and emerging as a potential pass-rushing threat of the future for the Arizona Cardinals.
A former fourth round draft choice out of Texas, Okafor looked like a potential mid-round steal for Arizona, but in 2015, his statistics came back to earth.
In his third season in the league, Okafor started a career-high 13 games, but was part of a Cardinals' pass-rush that turned out to be one of the few weaknesses on a team that went 13-3 and appeared in the NFC Championship game.
By the time the Cardinals had played in the NFC Championship, though, Okafor's season was already over, as a mysterious injury he suffered off the field landed him on the team's injured reserve list prior to the start of the playoffs.
How Okafor suffered his injury remains unpublicized, but the fact it took place off of the field created doubt about his future with the organization.
With one season remaining on his contract, Okafor was hoping to put together a statement season in 2016, but due to an injury in training camp and the Cardinals' addition of Chandler Jones, that season never truly materialized, leaving him in an uncertain place moving forward.
Okafor in 2016
At the start of training camp, Okafor appeared poised to play behind Jones and second-year Missouri product Markus Golden, having lost his starting spot due to Jones' acquisition and Golden's emergence late during the 2016 season.
Still, Okafor clearly proved himself as the Cardinals' third-best option at outside linebacker, and looked quicker off the ball than we anticipated at the beginning of August. Okafor looked poised to contribute in a reduced role, but near the end of training camp, he suffered a torn bicep that provided a significant setback.
Okafor was left with the choice of having surgery or playing through pain with his effectiveness limited, and Okafor ultimately chose to play with the injury.
Knowing he was in the final year of his rookie contract and knowing his relationship with the Cardinals wasn't as smooth as it had been prior to his off-the-field injury, Okafor was left in a challenging position. Nevertheless, he filled his role as the team's third pass rusher, spelling Jones and Golden and racking up 3.5 sacks in limited opportunities.
Okafor still demonstrated his impressive athleticism off the edge, and if he's able to return to health, he may be able to improve upon his numbers next season.
Okafor in 2017
As far as secondary pass-rushing options go, Okafor should be one of the more naturally talented players to hit the free agency market this offseason.
Though Arizona could use a true third pass-rusher and would certainly find itself in a tough spot if either Jones or Golden suffered a severe injury in 2017, it's unlikely Okafor will find himself with the Cardinals again next season.
Instead, Okafor should command a decent salary on a short-term contract on a team looking to improve its depth at outside linebacker. A capable pass-rusher in a 3-4 scheme, Okafor is also a decent run-stopper, who moves his feet well on contact but needs to improve his ability to shed blocks. With that in mind, he may be able to find a role as a sub-package, third down pass rusher from a team with better run-stopping linebackers looking to improve its ability to impact quarterbacks.
Based on his history in Arizona and the team's depth at the position, it's unlikely Okafor returns for a fifth season with the organization. Still, even though his loss may seem minor, Okafor filled a key role and won't be easy to replace.