Cardinals Examine Options to Replace Pace

The Cardinals defense could suffer a major setback if Calvin Pace is lost via free agency.'s Adam Caplan reported earlier this week that the chances of Pace being re-signed are less than 50 percent. examines the top candidates to replace the standout 'backer.

Given the increasing likeliness that Calvin Pace will not be back next season, the front office must develop a contingency plan to replace him. Pace excelled last year after a disappointing start to his career and GM Rod Graves must determine if Pace can sustain his recent success.

Pace racked up 98 tackles and 6.5 sacks last season after totaling only 84 tackles and 7.5 sacks in his previous four years combined.

Pace (6'4", 272 pounds) is a ‘tweener who lacks an elite combination of size and speed. As a defensive end, he is too small to hold his ground at the point of attack. As a linebacker, he lacks the agility to make plays in coverage. However, Pace is sufficient in both areas and is an excellent fit in the Cardinals' 3-4 defense because of his versatility.

Arizona's depth chart at linebacker would still be manageable even if Pace leaves the desert. Chike Okeafor has been very productive over the course of his career and would assume Pace's spot in the starting lineup. Okeafor was slotted as the starter heading into last season, but was lost for the year after suffering a torn bicep during the preseason.

Former third-round pick Darryl Blackstock would be a dark-house to win the starting job should Pace leave. Blackstock enters his fourth season with the Cardinals and has extensive experience playing in the 3-4 defense, going all the way back to his days at Virginia. He has shown flashes of his potential but is still too unreliable to be a full-time starter.

Two potential replacements for Pace in this year's draft class are Florida DE Derrick Harvey (6'4", 260 pounds) and Clemson DE Phillip Merling (6'5", 270 pounds). Both have similar measurables to Pace and are capable of playing in the 3-4 defense.

Auburn DE Quentin Groves could be a wild-card. Groves (6'3", 252 pounds) lacks Pace's size, but features outstanding sideline-to-sideline speed. He has ample strength to hold his own as an outside linebacker and displays a natural pass-rushing ability.

DE Ebenezer Ekuban would be a logical free-agent target. Prior to signing with the Denver Broncos in 2005, Ekuban spent five seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, a team that utilizes the 3-4 defense.

Former Carolina DE Mike Rucker is also an option. Rucker, a nine-year NFL veteran, accumulated 55.5 sacks during his tenure with the Panthers. Rucker and Ekuban both look to be adequate replacements and would soften the blow of Pace leaving.

The Cardinals must now determine whether Pace is worth the hefty price-tag he is demanding. Letting Pace go could halt the team's defensive progress, which is vital heading into next year. However, if GM Rod Graves decides to go in another direction, there appear to be plenty of capable replacements.

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