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Free Agency Primer 2016: Linebackers

Posted Mar 4, 2016

Cardinals could address pass-rushing deficiency with addition of outside linebacker

The Cardinals’ front office is surveying the free agent landscape, hoping to complement a core which went 13-3 last season and advanced to the NFC Championship game. Free agency begins on March 9, and we’ll break down the team’s needs at each position leading up to the signing period.

More free agent analysis: TE I RB I QB I WR I OL I ST

Free agent primer: Linebacker

Cap numbers of players under contract for 2016: ILB Deone Bucannon ($2.1 million); OLB Alex Okafor ($1.79 million); ILB Kevin Minter ($1.4 million); OLB Markus Golden ($890,530); OLB Kareem Martin ($759,890); OLB Shaq Riddick ($577,958); ILB Alani Fua ($530,666); OLB Tristan Okpalaugo ($490,000); OLB Zack Wagenmann ($452,666); ILB Gabe Martin ($450,000); ILB Quayshawn Nealy ($450,000); OLB Mike Reilly ($450,000).

Scheduled free agents: OLB Dwight Freeney; ILB Sean Weatherspoon; OLB Jason Babin; OLB LaMarr Woodley; ILB Kenny Demens

Need: High

Analysis: General Manager Steve Keim has been clear in his desire to add more effective pass-rushers to the equation for 2016. There are some intriguing options at both outside linebacker and defensive end in free agency, and much of it might come down to cost. Those players tend to get the richest deals besides quarterbacks, so Keim must balance whether paying a top-tier pass-rusher is worth losing out on players at other positions.

Linebacker Dwight Freeney wasn’t signed until after five games in 2015 but finished with a team-best eight sacks. The Cardinals would likely welcome him back but it’s unknown if he will want to play another year or retire. Markus Golden was the other consistent pass-rusher last season, and he will be a main cog. Alex Okafor finished the season with only two sacks and then hurt his toe in an off-field incident during the postseason, so he is a question mark after heading into the season as the team’s top outside rushing threat. Shaq Riddick, Kareem Martin, Zack Wagenmann and new signee Tristan Okpalaugo are among a group of players who hope to establish themselves on the edge heading into 2016.

The inside linebacker duo of Deone Bucannon and Kevin Minter will be back, although the Cardinals could look to add another piece to the puzzle if the right player is available. Sean Weatherspoon never made the impact expected and seems unlikely to return. Alani Fua showed some promise as an undrafted rookie free agent, while Gabe Martin was elevated from the practice squad to the active roster late in the season.

Fans will watch the outside linebacker portion of free agency with great interest. Pressuring the quarterback was the Cardinals’ biggest weakness in 2015, and Keim has made fixing that his top priority. He struck quickly for a marquee free agent each of the past two seasons, although both – Jared Veldheer and Mike Iupati – came on the offensive line. We’ll know soon if he’s willing to make a big splash at outside linebacker in free agency.

Notable past free agent LB signings by the Cardinals: Freeney (2015); Woodley (2015); Larry Foote (2014); Karlos Dansby (2013); John Abraham (2013); Joey Porter (2010); Paris Lenon (2010); Clark Haggans (2008); Travis LaBoy (2008); Seth Joyner (1994).

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