TEMPE, Ariz. — For Alex Okafor, 2014 was hopefully the beginning.
After appearing in just one game as a rookie in 2013 due to a biceps injury, he went on to play in 13 for the Arizona Cardinals, coming up with a team-leading eight sacks.
As a team the Cardinals tallied 35, the ninth-worst mark in the NFL.
Arizona would no doubt like to get after the quarterback more, with the former fourth-round pick out of Texas one of the players who will lead the way.
“We brought in some guys that can come off the edge with some heat, so I’m excited about that,” Okafor said after a mini-camp practice. “But just as far as myself, I’ve got to get better each year and I’ve got to be that guy this year.
“Last year, I was able to do some of the things I did because the offenses weren’t game planning against me. Now I’ve got the expectations of them, knowing that I’ll be that guy this year, so I’ve got to make those adjustments as well.”
Okafor said those adjustments include “a little bit of everything,” including more film study, getting stronger and more able to fight through a double team.
Though the biggest change may be simply staying healthy.
Okafor missed the first three games of the 2014 season due to a quadriceps injury, and after making his debut in the team’s Week 4 loss to the Denver Broncos — primarily because another Arizona defender, Matt Shaughnessy, was hurt — went on to prove that if on the field, he can get after the quarterback.
At 6-foot-4 and 261 pounds, Okafor certainly looks the part of an impact player. And in leading the team in sacks without playing a full 16 games, he proved capable of filling the role.
But as the 24-year-old noted, there are increased expectations, both from himself and everyone else.
“Alex has improved and in 16 games he would have been a double-digit sack guy last year,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “He’s just got to stay healthy.”
The Cardinals spent some of their offseason adding to their defense, bringing in linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Sean Weatherspoon along with defensive linemen Corey Peters and Corey Redding as free agents, as well as drafting Markus Golden, Shaquille Riddick and Rodney Gunter.
Some of the additions, like Woodley, Golden and Riddick, are expected to help bolster the pass rush, though all come with question marks. In Okafor, the team has someone it knows can get the job done.
“I had a full offseason, no hampering injuries,” he said. “This is the first one I’ve ever had. I can already see the strength gains in the weight room and I think that will make a significant difference on the field.
“And I’m excited about that.”