Cardinals’ biggest draft-day need: Edge rusher

Alex Okafor led the Cardinals last season with eight sacks.

TEMPE, Ariz. — Cardinals general manager Steve Keim and coach Bruce Arians say they don’t have any major needs heading into this week’s NFL Draft.

Not to be contrary, but here’s one to consider: a consistent edge rusher.

The Cardinals finished 24th in the NFL last season with 35 sacks. Many of those were the product of blitzes. Arizona brought pressure more than any team in the NFL, putting a strain on the team’s secondary, particularly cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie, who were often left alone in coverage.

Cromartie is gone, and for all his promise, Justin Bethel is still green and unproven. That’s one reason to find a consistent edge rusher, but the bigger picture is simple: The more the Cardinals can generate pressure with a four-man front, the greater their chances of maintaining their defensive integrity.

"With the way the passing game has evolved, you need somebody who can apply constant pressure on the quarterback," said retired NFL player Bertrand Berry, who posted 14.5 sacks for the Cardinals in 2004 — the third-highest total in franchise history. "You don’t want to always have to manufacture pressure through scheme and zone dog and all out blitzes. It puts too much of a strain on your linebackers and your back end. You want somebody in your front four who can put his hand on the ground and go get the quarterback any time you need it."

The Cardinals do have some options on their current roster. That, coupled with the usual pre-draft smokescreens, may be why Arians and Keim aren’t using the "need" word. 

Outside linebacker Alex Okafor showed promise last season, leading the team with eight sacks. Calais Campbell had seven sacks from his defensive end position and still has upside to that part of his game. The Cardinals also signed 30-year-old veteran linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who Arians describes as a "very physical outside edge player" who "collapses the pocket and sometimes gives you some good inside pressure."

Arians also revealed at the NFL owners meetings that the team will move defensive end Kareem Martin to outside linebacker this season.

"With his length — I wouldn’t say he’s Aldon Smith at this point in his career — but he’s got that body style and he’s shown some stuff off the edge, so we are going to look at him to see if he can play in space at all," Arians said. "That might be a spot where he can find his niche as a pass rusher.

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"With the number of guys we have to mix packages together, I really like our pass rush," Arians added, before admitting he’d like to have one more speed guy.

"I think Calais is the key," Berry said. "They’re going to build around him. With all due respect to Patrick Peterson and the secondary, they’re going to go as Calais goes.

"If you don’t have someone on the outside to take pressure off of him, then teams can clamp down on him. You don’t always want Calais to have to put forth a Herculean effort, so I think a lot of teams are taking Seattle’s approach where you have and need two or three guys that can rotate in and apply pressure."  

The 2015 NFL Draft is considered deep in edge rushers; as many as five could come off the board in the first 15 picks. Three edge rushers have gone in the top 10 in each of the past two drafts, and 32 edge rushers have been selected in the first rounds of the last five drafts. There have been six first-round edge rushers in each of the past two drafts, and eight went in the first round in 2011.

Florida’s Dante Fowler Jr., Nebraska’s Randy Gregory, Clemson’s Vic Beasley,Kentucky’s Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Missouri’s Shane Ray are considered the top edge rushers in this year’s draft, although some warts have developed on Gregory and Ray that could hurt their stock. Ray was cited Monday for marijuana possession, and Gregory failed a drug test at the NFL Scouting Combine for the same reason. 

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A look at the top OLB & DE draft prospects, per CBSSports.com

Outside linebackers

Player School Ht./Wt. Projected round
Dante Fowler Florida 6-3, 261 1
Vic Beasley Clemson 6-3, 246 1
Eli Harold Virginia 6-3, 247 1-2
Shaq Thompson Washington 6-0, 228 2
Lorenzo Mauldin Louisville 6-4, 259 2-3
Kwon Alexander LSU 6-1, 227 3
Hau’oli Kikaha Washington 6-2, 253 3
Davis Tull Chattanooga 6-2, 246 3-4
Jordan Hicks Texas 6-1, 236 4
Mike Hull Penn State 6-0, 237 4
Alani Fua BYU 6-5, 238 4
Jake Ryan Michigan 6-2, 240 4-5
Xzavier Dickson Alabama 6-3, 240 4-5
Markus Golden Missouri 6-2, 260 5
Zach Hodges Harvard 6-2, 250 5-6

 

DEFENSIVE ENDS

Player School Ht./Wt. Projected round
Alvin Dupree Kentucky 6-4, 269 1
Randy Gregory Nebraska 6-5, 235 1
Shane Ray Missouri 6-3, 245 1
Arik Armstead Oregon 6-7, 292 1-2
Owamagbe Odighizuma UCLA 6-3, 267 1-2
Preston Smith Mississippi State 6-5, 271 2
Danielle Hunter LSU 6-5, 252 2
Mario Edwards Jr. Florida State 6-3, 279 2
Nate Orchard Utah 6-3, 250 2-3
Henry Anderson Stanford 6-6, 294 3
Trey Flowers Arkansas 6-2, 266 3
Za’Darius Smith Kentucky 6-4, 274 3-4
Anthony Chickillo Miami (Fla.) 6-3, 267 4
Obum Gwacham Oregon State 6-5, 246 4
Frank Clark Michigan 6-3, 271 4-5