The Arizona Cardinals don’t need much for edge rushers heading into 2021.
In theory, there should be players who can make a more immediate impact that will be available if Arizona hangs on to its 16th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Otherwise, general manager Steve Keim should feel comfy with Chandler Jones expected to be back healthy in 2021, plus Markus Golden, Dennis Gardeck and Devon Kennard sharing some reps on the opposite edge.
Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s defensive line doesn’t need much, either, with young players returning and J.J. Watt joining Arizona.
Under the radar, the Cardinals do need a starting nose tackle, and who that is with 2020 captain Corey Peters still coming off a serious knee injury and still a free agent remains an unknown. Most draft analysts don’t think there will be a defensive tackle taken at No. 16, either (more on that in a bit).
All that said, Jones is entering a contract year without an extension signed to this point. Gardeck is on a one-year deal. Watt is in his waning years.
Keim and the Cardinals believe the edge class in 2021 is deep, so maybe they feel comfortable about what’s available in later rounds.
Still, there’s an argument that adding a ready-to-go rookie edge rusher could pay dividends beyond 2021. Here’s which players could be first-round options at outside linebacker and the interior of the line.
Kwity Paye, Michigan
The 6-foot-4, 277-pound Paye might be functionally best as a end in a 4-3 defense, but the athletic package is enticing if teams believe they can lock down his fundamentals and technique.
Over four games in an abbreviated 2020 season, Paye finished with 16 tackles and two sacks. A year prior, he recorded 50 tackles and 6.5 sacks.
Paye is considered a top-10 prospect by some and a top-20 player by others. While perspectives on his stock at this point improve as you prioritize potential over college production, what appears to be agreed upon is that Paye is a workhorse and a plus locker room personality.
Paye has been forged by fire through a challenging upbringing as an immigrant and finds his “why” in taking care of his family — he’s internally driven and appears to be the kind of individual you want in your building to buy into the process. He’s a home run from an intangibles, effort and tools perspective but his scheme fit is an important accommodation to make for optimal success.
Azeez Ojulari, Georgia
Ojulari is more of a fitting outside linebacker for Arizona’s 3-4 defense at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds.
Playing in the SEC, he’s got plenty of film against fierce competition and the numbers express that with 31 tackles, two passes defensed, 8.5 sacks and four forced fumbles in 2020.
Ojulari is a near-consensus top-20 player.
His ability to attack pulling blocks and shut down potential running lanes was fun to watch against Alabama. He has quality rush burst with loose limbs, but has a limited number of rush moves. Ojulari hasn’t learned to set up blockers yet. The strength, football character, explosiveness and athleticism all get check marks, but he won’t reach his potential until he cultivates his pass-rush talent and learns to stay separated from the punch.
Jaelan Phillips, Miami
Phillips has an extensive injury history but has been on scouts’ radars since high school. A five-star recruit to UCLA, he didn’t break out until a transfer and 2020 season with the Miami Hurricanes.
Phillips posted 45 tackles with three passes defense, a pick and eight sacks last year.
At 6-foot-5 and 266 pounds, Phillips has the length and the athleticism to slot in as a starter for most teams, but there’s of course the medical issues that include concussions, wrist and ankle injuries. Phillips also called his football career over with while at UCLA, then came back to have a big year at Miami.
Gregory Rousseau, Miami
While Phillips has injuries and a retirement limiting the amount of tape, his teammate, Rousseau, doesn’t have much because he’s relatively new to the edge-rushing position.
A former high school receiver and safety, Rousseau suffered a broken ankle that ended his 2018 season after two games, piled up a ridiculous 15.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss in 2019 but then sat out this past year.
With that, Rousseau’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, is bumping that hype machine loudly, as is former Hurricane and Cardinals star Calais Campbell.
Long-limbed, even-front end with a projectable frame but a concerning lack of functional edge experience. Much of his sack production came via athletic mismatches against interior blockers when reduced inside. He lacks prototypical get-off and needs more violence and pop in his hands, but his length, pursuit agility and wide-open throttle really stand out on tape.
Christian Barmore, Alabama
Barmore is the only interior defensive lineman on this list for good reason: It’s just not a good class of them.
ESPN’s best available list doesn’t have an interior defensive lineman until No. 32, where Barmore appears. The Draft Network has the first defensive tackle, Levi Onwuzurike out of Washington, ahead of Barmore (49) at No. 36 overall.
The good news for Arizona is the team probably doesn’t need to reach for a defensive lineman. J.J. Watt will provide run support and pass-rush pop at end, while Zach Allen flashed last year in his second season.
The duo of 2020 draft picks Leki Fotu and Rashard Lawrence should be rotation pieces, and last year’s big free agent pickup Jordan Phillips has a lot to prove after injuries scuttled his first year with Arizona.
Again, Peters remains a free agent as of this post, and he’s coming off a serious knee injury.
Lawrence remains the only nose tackle on the roster right now, so if the Cardinals did go with a very surprising pick of a defensive tackle in the first round, maybe that’d be Barmore, though he’s projected more as a 3-technique than a true nose tackle.
Barmore recorded 37 tackles with three passes defensed, eight sacks and three forced fumbles this past year for the Crimson Tide. That included a five-tackle, one-sack championship game against Ohio State.