Kentucky's Bud Dupree (right) figures to be off the draft board by the time the Cardinals pick at No. 24.
The NFL draft will be held from April 30 through May 2 in Chicago. The Cardinals addressed several needs in free agency and are now zeroing in on their draft targets. We'll take a look at each position over the next few weeks.
Draft primer: Linebacker
Cardinals under contract: ILB Sean Weatherspoon; ILB Daryl Washington; OLB Alex Okafor; OLB LaMarr Woodley; OLB Matt Shaughnessy; ILB Kevin Minter; OLB Lorenzo Alexander; OLB Kareem Martin; ILB Kenny Demens; ILB Glenn Carson.
A list of inside and outside linebackers projected to be drafted
Analysis: While the Cardinals shored up multiple spots on their roster in free agency last month, they did not end up signing a high-end edge pass-rusher, which makes it a position they will likely address in the draft. The Cards did sign veteran LaMarr Woodley. The Cardinals reportedly had interest in former Redskins outside linebacker Brian Orakpo in free agency, but he signed with the Titans, and while Alex
Okafor showed promise last season, the Cardinals would love to add a potentially elite player to the position group. The Cardinals finished 24th in the NFL last season with 35 sacks, and much of those were engineered through blitzes. A consistent backfield threat in four-man rushes would do wonders in increasing the defense's effectiveness.
The top two outside linebackers in the draft are Clemson's Vic Beasley and Florida's Dante Fowler, but they are expected to go in the top 10, long before the Cardinals choose at No. 24. Missouri's Shane Ray, Kentucky's Bud Dupree and Nebraska's Randy Gregory are wild cards, Gregory as a certain top 10 pick who could drop after a failed drug test at the Scouting combine. Virginia's Eli Harold and Washington's Shaq Thompson are on the next tier and are projected as early second-rounders. As General Manager Steve Keim showed last year with Deone Bucannon, he's not afraid to defy those projections and grab a player earlier than most expect if he likes what he sees. There is a large cluster of outside linebackers projected to go in the late rounds if the Cardinals have interest in taking a flyer on one of them.
The signing of Weatherspoon added a quality player to the inside linebackers group, but the unclear future of Daryl Washington still makes it a position of need. Kevin Minter has shown the ability to play well against the run, but the Cardinals could use a rangier inside linebacker to pair with Weatherspoon in nickel situations if they prefer to leave Bucannon at safety in 2015. UCLA's Eric Kendricks, Mississippi State's Benardrick McKinney and Clemson's Stephone Anthony are projected as second-round picks, and there is not as much depth overall at this position compared to outside linebacker.
If Washington returns from suspension, Okafor builds on his breakout campaign and Woodley gives an added pass-rushing element, the Cardinals could have enough depth at linebacker as presently constructed. However, the Cardinals don't like relying on a best-case scenario, and will likely fortify this position with at least one selection and maybe more in the draft.