The last time the Arizona Cardinals selected an edge rusher in the first round of the draft was in 2017, with Temple’s Haason Reddick. And despite a good year from Reddick in 202o, his time in Arizona was hardly a successful one. Ultimately, he finds himself on his second contract in the pros, except it is not with the Cardinals. Still, general manager Steve Keim could look to roll the dice on another pass rusher this year.
An underappreciated position group in this year’s draft, there is some significant talent available off the edge. Admittedly, there are no elite pass-rushing prospects worthy of a top ten selection. Yet the group is deep enough to have a handful worth considering in the first round. Picking at sixteen overall, the Cardinals could have their pick of this year’s edge rushers if they so choose.
Although not explicitly a position of need for a team in win-now mode, drafting a pass rusher for the future of the franchise might be the addition needed by Steve Keim, as the Cardinals begin to re-establish a foothold in the NFC West.
Cardinals Could Look at Edge Rusher in the 2021 NFL Draft
Cardinals Current Edge Rushers
Return of Chandler Jones
Again, the Cardinals are not in dire need of a pass rusher. The unit is already headlined by Chandler Jones, arguably the most underrated player in the NFL. Since being drafted in 2012, Jones leads all players in sacks, making him the focal point of the team’s defense.
Then again, two things must be noted in regards to Jones’ future with the team. The first is that he is returning from a biceps injury that saw him must most of last season. There is also the fact that Jones is entering a contract year, as he will hit the market following this season. His productivity suggests an extension, but at 31-years-old, this is no sure thing.
Who is Starting Opposite Jones?
Entering the off-season, pairing Jones with the emerging Reddick was an attractive prospect. Or it did until Reddick sprung Arizona for the Carolina Panthers. Even so, the Cardinals do have a solid stable of outside linebackers opposite Jones, with Devon Kennard and Markus Golden likely competing for the starting job.
Kennard flashed early in 2020 but, after missing time due to Covid-19, faded throughout the year. He is set to earn over six million in 2021, expensive for the situational role is expected to have. Subsequently, there is some fluidity with his deal, in terms of either restructuring it or possibly being cut. As for Golden, he was a midseason acquisition in 2020, returning to Arizona as cover after Jones’ season-ending injury. Golden played well enough to earn himself an extension this off-season. Beyond this, the Cardinals depth at outside linebacker consists largely of special team contributors like Dennis Gardeck.
It is clear that the Cardinals do have some solid options to start in 2021. Nevertheless, with Jones’ future unknown, the Cardinals must take a hard look at what the draft has to offer.
Who Could the Cardinals Draft?
At this point, most mock drafts have paired the Cardinals with a cornerback with the sixteenth overall pick. After all, they did just lose franchise great Patrick Peterson in free agency. Yet, in terms of pass-rushing options, several first-round projections have most of the top rushers left on the board at sixteen.
In Vance Joseph’s defense, the Cardinals’ principle pass rushers are stand-up outside linebackers, rather than defensive ends. Miami’s Jaelan Phillips has the size and speed to be effective, with some versatility as a defensive end. An extremely nuanced young player, Phillips has jostled with Michigan’s Kwity Paye throughout the offseason for the title of the draft’s best edge prospect. If the Cardinals are to be super aggressive with their first pick, Jaelan Phillips would be a strong option. He very well may be the most complete edge rusher available this year.
Beyond the very best prospects though, there is still a wealth of talent available. Prospects such as Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari have been touted as first-round talents, albeit in the pick 20-32 range. With the Cardinals in a maneuverable spot in the mid-range of the first round, there has been some suggestion that they move back in the draft. Given the talent expected to be available later in the first round, this is a viable option if the Cardinals were considering a pass rusher.
Potential Cardinals Dream Draft Pick
Perhaps the most intriguing option for the Cardinals would be Penn State’s Jayson Oweh. Although coming in as a top prospect, he was somewhat overshadowed in college by Micah Parsons, the draft’s top inside linebacker prospect. However, Oweh’s pro day put the league on notice, particularly his 4.39s 40-yard dash time. His size and length are complemented by his freakish athleticism, seeing him rise into first round consideration.
There is some concern in his lean frame and ability as a run defender, as well as doubts about the technical aspect of his pass rush. This has led to his fluctuating in his draft grade, which largely finds him towards the end of round one.
Oweh’s skill set would be a useful change of pace in the Cardinals’ scheme. Oweh’s speed option would be complementary to the power rushers the Cardinals currently have. Secondly, Oweh a developmental prospect, meaning there are aspects to his game he must refine. Yes, Oweh will be able to contribute early, but he may not be a starter as a rookie. This may suit the Cardinals’ situation, utilizing their current players to their full extent while allowing Oweh to develop in the NFL. They can groom Oweh as either a complement to or replacement for Chandler Jones, solidifying their pass rush in the near future.
Even with more significant needs elsewhere on the roster, selecting an edge rusher is not out of the question for the Cardinals at 16th overall. At the same time, the volatility of some prospects could leave first-round talent available for the Cardinals in the second round, where they pick 49th. It isn’t an absolute need, but the Cardinals should at least consider a pass rusher in this year’s draft.
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