Cardinals season review: Outside linebackers

Sam Acho, Lorenzo Alexander and Alex Okafor will return from injuries while John Abraham adds enviable depth.

John Abraham, left, was a late signing and recorded 11.5 sacks over the final 10 weeks of the season and finished with 37 tackles. He is under contract for next season.

Kevin Jariaj / USA TODAY Sports

Over the next several weeks, FOX Sports Arizona will conduct a position-by-position analysis of the Arizona Cardinals, examining their personnel's strengths and weaknesses, the team's free agents at that position and the team's draft or free-agent needs.

STARTERS

Lorenzo Alexander, Sam Acho: It is difficult, if not impossible to evaluate either player since they both went down with season-ending injuries in Week 3. Acho broke a leg and Alexander suffered a Lisfranc (foot) injury. Both went on injured reserve.

It's telling that both players earned the starting nod out of training camp over John Abraham, who was supposed to be used as a situational pass rusher, but played very well once he moved into the starting lineup. Still, Acho has only posted five sacks in the 19 games since his promising rookie season (seven sacks) and he hasn't been the playmaker he was that first year. Alexander has to prove he can be an effective starter after starring on special teams with the Washington Redskins and earning a Pro Bowl nod in 2012. He signed a three-year, $9.5 million free-agent contract with the Cardinals last offseason.

BACKUPS

Alex Okafor, John Abraham, Matt Shaughnessy, Dontay Moch, Marcus Benard: Like the starters, Okafor is coming off a season-ending injury suffered against the New Orleans Saints on Sept. 23 when he tore a biceps tendon. Okafor, a 2013 fourth-round pick, hasn't had a chance to make much of an impact so the jury is out on him.

Of all the free-agent moves the Cardinals made in the offseason, the last-minute signing of Abraham just before training camp opened ranks as one of the best. Abraham recorded 11.5 sacks over the final 10 weeks of the season and finished the season with 37 tackles (31 solos) after moving into the starting role due to injuries.

Where would the Cardinals have been without him and how smart do they look for signing him to a two-year deal, even though he'll turn 36 before next season begins? As coach Bruce Arians noted, Abraham clearly has plenty left in the tank.

Shaughnessy is a free agent who finished with 36 tackles (31 solos) and three sacks. At 27, he's an attractive reserve option who also helped the team's No. 1-ranked run defense. Other cap considerations and his demands will impact whether he returns.

Moch, a local product from Chandler Hamilton High School, showed flashes of speed and recorded a big sack against the Bucs in Week 4 at the Tampa 1-yard line. Benard is a depth player who also is a restricted free agent.

FREE AGENTS

Matt Shaughnessy (unrestricted), Marcus Benard (restricted).

FREE-AGENT NEEDS

With Alexander and Acho returning from injuries, and good backups under contract in Abraham and Okafor, the Cardinals don't have a huge need at this position. But if Shaughnessy leaves in free agency, the Cardinals could elect to sign a player to further bolster their depth.

DRAFT NEEDS

The free-agency logic applies here as well. If the Cardinals identify a player who could help their depth, they could select one in the later rounds.

TOP POTENTIAL DRAFT PICKS

Anthony Barr, UCLA; Khalil Mack, Buffalo; Ryan Shazier, Ohio State; Vic Beasley, Clemson; Kyle Van Noy, BYU; Dee Ford, Auburn; Michael Sam, Missouri; Telvin Smith, Florida State; Jeremiah Attaochu, Georgia Tech; Jordan Zumwalt, UCLA; Morgan Breslin, USC; Jordan Tripp, Montana; Christian Kirksey, Iowa; Adrian Hubbard, Alabama; Prince Shembo, Notre Dame; Ronald Powell, Florida; Devon Kennard, USC; Denicos Allen, Michigan State; Kevin Pierre-Louis, Boston College; Howard Jones, Shepherd.

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