General Manager Steve Keim made some high-profile moves in free agency, adding J.J. Watt, Rodney Hudson, A.J. Green, Malcolm Butler and others. The Cardinals have lofty goals in 2021, and finding impact rookies would help fortify the roster. We will break down each position group heading into the draft, which will be held from Thursday, April 29 through Saturday, May 1.
Free agent primer: Linebacker
Players under contract: OLB Chandler Jones, ILB Isaiah Simmons, ILB Jordan Hicks, OLB Markus Golden, OLB Devon Kennard, OLB Dennis Gardeck, ILB Tanner Vallejo, ILB Ezekiel Turner, OLB Kylie Fitts, ILB Evan Weaver, OLB Reggie Walker, ILB Terrance Smith, OLB Shareef Miller, ILB Donald Rutledge, OLB Jamell Garcia-Williams, ILB Jamal Carter.
The Cardinals' situation: The edge rushers have a high ceiling due to the presence of Jones, Golden and defensive end J.J. Watt, who can shift outside depending on the situation. At inside linebacker, Simmons is expected to be a difference-maker in his second NFL season while Hicks is a dependable option as the captain of the defense. Gardeck had seven sacks in 93 defensive snaps a year ago, and if he recovers well from a torn ACL, will be another nice option in pass-rushing situations. Kennard saw his role diminish as 2020 went along but is a proven commodity. Vallejo was re-signed this offseason and is expected to have a role in subpackages on defense. The rest of the players on the roster will angle for positioning on the depth chart.
The draft class: It's not an elite pass-rusher group in 2021, which could actually make it more realistic for the Cardinals to grab one at No. 16. Jaelan Phillips, Kwity Paye, Gregory Rousseau and Azeez Olujari have all been mock drafted to the Cardinals at one point or another. They have different strengths and weaknesses but bring potential. Micah Parsons is the crown jewel of the inside linebacker class and is projected to go in the top half of the first round. It seems a bit unlikely the Cardinals would spend a first-rounder at inside linebacker after drafting Simmons No. 8 overall a year ago. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is another top prospect at the position.
The conclusion: The Cardinals don't need edge rusher help this season, but with so many veterans at the position, an infusion of young talent would be welcomed. It would not be the most popular choice if the Cardinals chose an outside linebacker at No. 16, but it is a premium position that has to be examined closely each year for standout players. If an inside linebacker is added, it would likely be in the later rounds, but it's a position that seems low on the pecking order of needs heading into the draft.
Images of some of the top linebacker prospects heading into the draft