Linebacker Alex Okafor drops into coverage during an OTA this offseason.
Alex Okafor was just getting his feet wet during his rookie season when a torn biceps tendon ended it prematurely in Week 3 against the Saints.
The fourth-round pick finished with only one tackle in three games in 2013, but it's what he's done since that has the Cardinals excited. Okafor was a constant presence in the defensive meeting rooms during rehabilitation as he transitioned from college defensive end to NFL outside linebacker.
While he lost the valuable game experience, Okafor did all he could to make strides mentally.
"Seeing him grow, seeing him improve, he wants to be on that field," defensive end Frostee Rucker said. "With a year under his belt
mentally, being in the meetings and not making himself distant, he's glued right in and jelling."
Okafor returned to 100 percent early in the offseason, and it didn't take long for him to catch the eye of the coaching staff. Coach Bruce Arians said Okafor stood out every day during workouts.
"He had an excellent offseason," Arians said. "He was the guy we drafted. (Now) I want to see him when the noise level turns up."
Even though Okafor laments the missed game repetitions from a season ago, he sees a silver lining.
"I definitely would have been better off not injured and out there, but on a positive note, if I was going to get hurt, my rookie year is the best time for it to get done," he said. "Essentially, I probably would have been sitting anyway. It was a wasted year, but I took a lot in and learned from some great vets. It made a world of difference."
Okafor is a natural pass-rusher who accumulated 12½ sacks as a senior at Texas. That part still comes easy to him, even if he's standing up more now as opposed to putting a hand on the ground.
The bigger challenge is pass coverage. Okafor did less of it in college, and it can be a complicated step because every defensive player must work in concert with the others to succeed.
"You can memorize what to do in a play, but if you don't understand what's going on behind you, you're not going to be successful," Okafor said. "You've got to know where your help is and where you can help other people out. That's what I didn't understand last year."
If Okafor can continue to improve, he should see the field, but it's a crowded position group. John Abraham and Matt Shaughnessy are the projected starters, while Sam Acho and Marcus Benard are also proven veterans.
"I always told myself, if I can help this team and I'm good enough to be on the field, then I'll be on the field," Okafor said. "That's what it comes down to. If you're good enough to be out there, there's no vendetta against you. Whether the coaches like you or not, it doesn't matter. Their jobs are in your (hands), so if you can help the team you're going to be out there."
If Okafor can make strides in 2014, there could be a spot for him in the starting lineup next year. Abraham is 35 and in the last year of his contract, while Acho and Benard are also scheduled to be free agents in 2015. The Cardinals need a proven pass-rusher for the future, and Okafor wants to be that guy.
Even though 2013 was a lost season, he's entering this year feeling good and with plenty to prove.
"A year makes all the difference," Okafor said. "Not just learning the playbook, but getting comfortable knowing your teammates. I feel like I can finally be myself out on the field. I feel like I have an identity now and I'm not just trying to find myself. That's the biggest difference. I knew it would just be a matter of time before everything would click and I'd be ready to go. I had no doubt in my mind I could help this team."
Images of the 10 current Cardinals with the highest career sack totals.