Arizona Cardinals’ 2022 NFL Draft priorities: Pass rusher

Apr 27, 2022, 7:07 AM

Defensive end Jermaine Johnson II #11 of the Florida State Seminoles scores a defensive touchdown w...

Defensive end Jermaine Johnson II #11 of the Florida State Seminoles scores a defensive touchdown while eluding offensive lineman Walker Parks #64 of the Clemson Tigers during the fourth quarter during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 30, 2021 in Clemson, South Carolina. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

(Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

When it comes to the Arizona Cardinals’ needs this NFL Draft season, cornerback, pass rusher and wide receiver reign supreme.

But which of the trio is the most important to the team’s success in 2022?

Before Thursday’s festivities get underway, here’s a deeper look at each of the three positions general manager Steve Keim pinpointed during his pre-draft media availability last week.

Next up in the three-part series is pass rusher:

Returning players:

– Markus Golden
– Dennis Gardeck
– Devon Kennard
– Victor Dimukeje

Departures/Free agents:

– Chandler Jones
– Kylie Fitts (retired)

There’s no denying the Cardinals’ need for another capable pass-rushing option opposite Golden after watching the franchise’s all-time sacks leader in Jones head to Las Vegas in free agency this offseason.

Now, it’s on Arizona to find Golden’s new running mate for the upcoming season after the linebacker led the team with 11 sacks in 2021.

Gardeck is back in the mix after agreeing to a three-year deal worth a reported $12 million. While he’s been mostly used as a special teams piece, Gardeck had an impressive stretch filling in for Jones on the outside in 2020. With Jones sidelined by a season-ending biceps injury, Gardeck rattled off seven sacks and 10 QB hits over a 10-game span. Those numbers could have been more, too, if not for a torn ACL suffered in Week 15.

The biggest concern for Gardeck is can he have that same success over a full season? Over the 10-game sample size in 2020, he saw no more than 30% of the available defensive snaps in a game.

As for Kennard, Arizona views the linebacker as a trusted depth piece and veteran voice in the locker room as opposed to a starting option.

And while Dimukeje has been compared to a young Golden, the second-year pro was used mainly on special teams, seeing just 5% of available defensive snaps last season (45).

Prospects to keep an eye on:

– Jermaine Johnson (FSU)
– George Karlaftis (Purdue)
– Arnold Ebiketie (Penn State)

Of the three listed, Johnson figures to be off the board first come Thursday night.

ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay has Johnson going 14th to the Baltimore Ravens in his most recent mock draft.

Johnson had 12 sacks and 46 pressures at FSU in 2021, frequently using his quick feet, powerful hands and arsenal of pass-rush moves to overwhelm blockers.

Karlaftis, however, has been a name frequently mocked to the Cardinals since their season came to end. Of the 417 mock drafts gathered by this offseason, Karlaftis has been linked to the Cardinals 42 times, more than any other prospect.

The Boilermaker posted his best Pro Football Focus grade with an 87.2 grade last season. Over 12 games last season as a junior, Karlaftis recorded 10 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks to go along with four passes defensed and two forced fumbles.

Ebiketie is another name the Cardinals could consider and may even be a second-round option depending on how the draft shakes out.

McShay has Ebiketie going 35th overall to the New York Jets in his latest mock after he recorded 9.5 sacks and 46 pressures in 2021.

Ebiketie always has a pass-rush plan and is one of the more technical edge rushers in the class. He had 9.5 sacks and 46 pressures last season.

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Arizona Cardinals’ 2022 NFL Draft priorities: Pass rusher