CARDINALS CORNER

Cardinals questions post-NFL Draft: Who separates themselves at pass rusher?

May 24, 2024, 12:33 PM

The Arizona Cardinals replenished their roster and upgraded multiple positions with an addition of 12 NFL Draft picks and batch of free agents this offseason.

With arguably the biggest pieces of Arizona’s offseason now behind it, the attention turns to the depth chart and how the Cardinals’ roster will shake out.

While there’s still plenty of time before the pads come on, there’s no shortage of question marks surrounding Arizona ahead of Year 2 under head coach Jonathan Gannon and general manager Monti Ossenfort.

After taking a look at the offensive line, wide receiver and running back, it’s time to turn our attention to pass rusher.

Who separates themselves at Cardinals pass rusher?

While the Cardinals improved multiple areas of weakness at cornerback, wide receiver and defensive line through the draft and free agency, the same can’t be said within the outside linebackers room.

That says a lot given Arizona’s sack tally of 33 that ranked 30th in the NFL last season. If alarms are going off in your head, you’re not alone.

But with just one new addition to the group in 2024 fifth-rounder Xavier Thomas, Arizona is banking on its returning faces to take the appropriate steps forward.

It all starts with second-year pro BJ Ojulari.

After getting slow-rolled at the start of his rookie campaign due to a knee issue, Ojulari made up for lost time behind 40 tackles, five of which were for loss, four sacks, a pass defensed and six QB hits across 17 games played.

He finished the year tied for second on the team in sacks, trailing only veteran Dennis Gardeck (six), another prime candidate to lead the room for another year.

Ojulari has used that early exposure as a springboard this offseason, looking noticeably bigger and faster during the first round of organized team activities earlier this week.

His coaching staff is also making note of his transformation from Year 1 to Year 2.

“I was just talking to (offensive coordinator Drew Petzing) about it,” defensive coordinator Nick Rallis told Arizona Sports’ Wolf & Luke on Wednesday. “He was like, ‘Man, I can see BJ’s taken a step already in just a couple practices.’ “Just in the run game, setting violent edges, playing low, using his length, getting separation, hitting the ball and then winning his rushes.

“I’m excited about BJ. I know he’s been working hard. He’s looked good so far. He’s got to keep building off it.”

Ojulari isn’t the only Cardinals pass rusher expected to take a jump in Year 2 under Gannon and Rallis.

After transitioning from MIKE backer to edge rusher in 2023 and watching the team opt against picking up his fifth-year option, all eyes are on Zaven Collins in 2024.

Seemingly learning on the fly, Collins wrapped up Year 3 in the desert with 41 tackles, six for loss, 3.5 sacks, an interception, three passes defensed and six QB hits across 17 starts. On top of his pass-rushing duties, Collins was leaned on to play out in coverage.

This time around, though, he’s added more mass to the equation.

“I’ve put on probably eight pounds of lean muscle mass and decreased my body fat percentage,” Collins told Wolf & Luke on Wednesday. “It’s weird what eight pounds can do. It’s different.”

Arizona has a handful of candidates that could lead the charge in the outside linebackers room.

They just have to separate themselves from one another.

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