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With Free Agency Nearing, Cardinals Look To Gain An Edge

Pass rushers at premium; franchise tag unlikely for Jones by Tuesday deadline

Linebacker Chandler Jones is scheduled to become a free agent next week.
Linebacker Chandler Jones is scheduled to become a free agent next week.

The quote came from Florida State's Jermaine Johnson, one of the potential first-round edge rushers available in the draft.

"As long as I'm outside that tackle, I think I'll be a headache for the other team," Johnson said last week at the Scouting Combine.

The Cardinals, in context, are looking to add such a headache. Or pass rusher could become a headache for the team going into the 2022 season.

With free agency beginning in about a week, the top pass rusher expected to be available is the Cardinals' own Chandler Jones , who has played out the five-year contract he signed before the 2017 season. The NFL's franchise tag deadline is Tuesday, but barring something unexpected, the Cardinals won't use it on Jones for a second time. If they did, his 2022 salary would be a shade short of $25 million.

He should have a good market, even at age 32. Jones' departure isn't a foregone conclusion, although his situation has played out similarly to that of veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson a year ago. Peterson eventually signed with the Vikings.

If Jones were to exit, it would leave a significant hole in the defense. Jones had 10.5 sacks in 2021 (five came in the season opener) and he remained the top concern for opposing offensive lines.

Markus Golden, Dennis Gardeck, and Devon Kennard are the other main rostered options as pass rushers.

"That's an area, in Vance (Joseph)'s defense, we need to be able to play at a high level." coach Kliff Kingsbury said. "If we're not able to sign Chandler, and even if we are, to get younger there would be a good thing."

Getting younger wouldn't necessarily mean free agency. Jones and Von Miller, who is older than Jones, are the top two available. More youthful possibilities are the Titans' Harold Landry and former Cardinal-turned-Panther Haason Reddick.

Cardinals general manager Steve Keim acknowledged there is depth to the edge rusher talent in the draft. But – and there is always a "but" – "there are only so many men walking the earth who can do those things well."

"The thing about the pass rusher – does he fit what you do schematically?" Keim said. "Is he a 3-4 outside 'backer, is he a Sam, is he a Will, is he a 4-3 end, is a 4-3 end that can maybe grow into a 5-technique?

"Then when you determine where he fits, then it's where are you going to have to take him. The elite ones are going to go really high. Sometimes it comes down to, are you drafting an overachiever, who does all the things right but may never be a double-digit sack guy but be a nice player, or do you take chances on a guy who is still developing and maybe has underachieved in his career but has the unique skillset?"

The Cardinals were tied for 11th in the NFL in sacks per pass attempt, their total of 41 tied with Dallas for 13th in the NFL.

Depending on what happens with Jones, the Cardinals could end up delving into free agency and the draft.

"Rarely it's it going to be, 'Oh, third round, we got a guy exactly who we wanted. He'll have 18 sacks for us,' " Keim said. "But you can have guys who have success, the Markus Goldens of the world that can get you 10 or 11 sacks."

Several Cardinals participated in the NFL's annual Scouting Combine over the years, including QB Kyler Murray, WR DeAndre Hopkins, S Budda Baker, and RB James Conner.