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The Ringer: It’s now or never for Cardinals’ Robert Nkemdiche

Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche runs a drill with other defensive linemen during an NFL football organized team activity, Thursday, June 1, 2017, at the team training facility in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Robert Nkemdiche didn’t bring a spotless reputation into the NFL.

A projected top-15 pick heading into the 2016 draft, the Ole Miss product slipped to the 29th selection — likely due to concerns about his eccentric personality. It didn’t help that he also fell out of a broken window of an Atlanta hotel in December 2015, telling police that he was intoxicated.

The Arizona Cardinals took a swing on the defensive tackle in the draft, but in two seasons since, his personality still carries the narrative.

But the fact of the matter is Nkemdiche’s lack of pop on the field hasn’t taken the talk away from his off-beat personality that itself hasn’t led to any more concerns about his future in the NFL.

Nkemdiche played just five games his rookie year, then recorded 11 tackles in 12 appearances in 2017.

His single highlight came in the home finale, when he returned a fumble 21 yards for a touchdown. Entering his third season, hopes are high he can take a big step forward playing in a new defense under first-year coach Steve Wilks.

The Ringer’s Danny Kelly calls it a now-or-never year for Nkemdiche to break out.

Sometimes, change is good. The Cardinals are hoping that’s true for Nkemdiche, who has failed to notch a sack in 17 career games.

Arizona’s not likely to completely shift away from their old 3-4 blitz-heavy system, but they should employ plenty of the one-gap concepts that new head coach Steve Wilks and defensive coordinator Al Holcomb ran with the Panthers last year—a move that could pay dividends for Nkemdiche, an athletic and aggressive penetrator. Alongside pass rushers Chandler Jones and Markus Golden, Nkemdiche could see an uptick in one-on-one pass-rushing opportunities and has what looks to be a great chance to finally turn into the type of interior disruptor the team envisioned when they made him the 29th overall pick of the 2016 draft.

The third-year defensive tackle said earlier in June that he gained respect for Wilks when the two met following the head coaching hire in January.

“It’s a little attitude, a little edge,” Nkemdiche said of Wilks’ ability to let him be himself. “Not put as many restrictions on me; just what it sounds like. Just not trying to take my game and condense it; really just trying to bring out the best and everything that comes with that — even if some things are unorthodox, or not typical – in all aspects of what I am as a three-technique and a defender and an athlete, really bringing that to light and letting that be what it is.”

Comfort with the coaching staff is one thing, but the fit in the scheme is reason for optimism that Nkemdiche could find more success in 2018 than his first two seasons.

Nkemdiche, who had more responsibility in the 3-4 defense utilized by former head coach Bruce Arians, is expected to play under Wilks more often in a 4-3 scheme, something that could help him as a natural 3-technique tackle.

“You have one gap and go straight forward. When you’re in a 3-4 defense, a lot of guys on the front line on the defensive line are two-gap, which you have a lot more responsibility,” Jones told Bickley & Marotta on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station in May.

“Like Robert Nkemdiche, he’s so explosive off the ball, and I felt like a lot of times last year … he was thinking too much. He was two-gapping. He’ll tell you himself, he’s not a two-gap player. I’m excited for him.”

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