TEMPE, Ariz. — The Arizona Cardinals’ selection of defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche at No. 29 overall in the 2016 NFL Draft should come with a warning.
A top talent, he was available to them for a reason.
The reason, in fact, is pretty well documented. Some off the field issues as well as inconsistent effort led teams to question whether or not he will be a success as a professional.
Yet, for any reasons the Cardinals should not have drafted the former Ole Miss standout, there was one thing that led to them making him the pick.
He has the potential to be really, really good.
“A guy that we had rated extremely high,” Cardinals GM Steve Keim said of Nkemdiche. “From a talent perspective, (he) has tremendous skills. Height, weight and speed, rare movement; tremendous flexibility for a big man.
“Not only is he a guy that we think can be a tremendous player, but he has great schematical flexibility. Has the ability to bounce from anywhere, really, across the defensive line, and in fact in nickel situations can bounce outside and rush the passer. He is a guy that we are extremely excited about.”
It’s easy to understand why the Cardinals are so pleased to land a player of Nkemdiche’s caliber, especially picking where they were. The number one overall recruit in the country coming out of high school, the 6-foot-4, 296-pound defensive lineman was a two-time first-team All-SEC selection and a two-time second-team All-America pick while at Mississippi.
In all, he tallied 98 tackles, seven sacks, 19 tackles for loss and five passes defensed in three college seasons, and at the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis he ran the 40-yard dash at 4.87 seconds, posted a 35-inch vertical jump, did 28 bench press reps and had a broad jump of 116 inches.
Picking as late as they were, Keim said the Cardinals were forced to sweat it out while they hoped Nkemdiche would be available when they were on the clock. After listing some of the player’s credentials, the GM added they feel fortunate to have been able to make this pick.
That said, there was little thought given to trading up in order to ensure they’d be able to grab Nkemdiche.
“Trust your board,” Keim offered.
While his statistics do not exactly jump off the page, Nkemdiche’s tools do, and he posted some of his biggest games against some of college football’s best teams. Last season, he notched six tackles and a half-sack in an upset victory over eventual College Football Playoff Champion Alabama.
“He’s a nightmare for a guard or a center, and he can work at tackle, off the edge,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “The thing he brings is such a powerful, inside, quick rusher that runs good stunts and games.”
Arians added he likes what his team’s defensive front looks like now adding Nkemdiche to a group that includes Calais Campbell, Chandler Jones, Markus Golden and Rodney Gunter.
A defensive focal point in college, he is now joining a team with plenty of established talent around him.
“I’ll play three-technique; I’ll do whatever they need me to do to help them be successful,” Nkemdiche said of where he sees himself fitting in. “It’s just a life-changing moment and I can’t wait to be with my teammates and get to know them and start winning games and start grinding with them.”
Unlike last year’s first-round pick, offensive tackle D.J. Humphries, Nkemdiche will be expected to see the field this season. Arians said he reminds him a bit of former Cardinal Darnell Dockett, albeit “a little bit bigger, a little bit stronger and a little bit faster.”
“But a lot like Darnell; explosive — just a nightmare for a guard.”
When asked who he models his game after, Nkemdiche brought up John Randle, who just so happens to be a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. As for how he describes his game, though, the rookie started by saying he is aggressive.
“I’m very smart, almost spastic,” he added. “I just love the game. I can pass rush. I can stop the run. I can just fit into the defense well; I can be very disruptive and I know how to get in the backfield and cause havoc and cause problems.”
The Cardinals certainly believe he is capable of that, and his production begins to match his potential, the team will have itself one of the draft’s biggest steals. Until he takes the field there will be question marks, though, which is the case when collegiate production does not quite match up with raw skills.
However, any concerns over a lack of dominance in college are assuaged by what Nkemdiche could be, which is one of the better interior defensive linemen in the NFL.
“He did not play power running schemes, double-team stuff, very well when he knew it was going to happen all the time,” Arians said of his inconsistent production. “But, versus zone teams, he was unblockable. I think with all — especially young players coming out early — there are going to be some peaks and valleys as far as effort, especially in the defensive line.
“But, when he was on, baby, there was nothing else like him.”
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