TEMPE, Ariz. — The Arizona Cardinals’ first-round pick one year ago, offensive lineman D.J. Humphries, did not play a single snap for the team in his rookie season.
In fact, he was not even active for any of the team’s 18 games.
The Cardinals have since referred to Humphries’ initial campaign as a redshirt season, and as of now he is expected to take over as the starting right tackle in 2016.
There will be no such plan for this year’s first-round pick, Robert Nkemdiche. The defensive lineman from Ole Miss, chosen 29th overall, is not necessarily expected to be a star in year one, but he is expected to play.
“There’s no doubt he’ll be an impact player,” head coach Bruce Arians said.
A defensive tackle who can also move out to end, Nkemdiche appeared in 35 collegiate games (starting 34), recording 98 tackles, seven sacks, 19 tackles for loss and five passes defensed. A physical specimen at 6-foot-4 and 296-pounds, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.87 seconds, did 28 bench press reps, had a 35-inch vertical jump and an 116-inch broad jump at the NFL Draft Combine.
Nkemdiche is certainly not lacking in tools, nor is he short on confidence.
“I’m more than ready,” Nkemdiche said. “I feel like the people around me, Coach Buck (Brentson Buckner), Steve (Keim), Mike (Bidwill), Coach Arians, everybody around me is going to put me in a position to be successful, and it’s all up to me. I’m going to put in the work. I’m going to do everything to the max, and I’m going to be a great player, and I can’t wait to show that over time.”
In Arizona, Nkemdiche is joining a defensive front that already has plenty of talent, but when asked if the line might be getting a bit crowded, Arians said, “Never.” Keim agreed that a team can never have enough defensive line depth.
“He’s going to fit in well,” said Buckner, the defensive line coach. “He’ll fit in as a guy that comes in — he’s got to come in and take a hat from somebody, and those guys have got to fight like hell to keep their hat. But all in all, it’s going to make us a better room because there’s no sleeping on your laurels now.
“He’s a guy that can play several positions for us and play them at a high level.”
That’s not to say there will not be a learning curve for Nkemdiche, who as a rookie undoubtedly has plenty of room to grow. That’s part of what has the Cardinals excited about him — they believe he can be molded into something special.
Buckner said he never expected Nkemdiche to be an option for the team at No. 29. As their pick neared and he was still on the board, it was like Christmas morning waiting for the right time to open a gift.
“He has a whole bunch of talent,” he said. “I’m not going to make him a great player — he’s a great player already — I’m just here to make sure he maximizes his ability and to shine it up a little bit.”
If all goes according to plan, Nkemdiche will become one of the Cardinals’ brightest stars. Buckner said he wants the rookie to have that expectation of himself this seaso and that if he earns a starting job, it is because he beat someone out for the job and is ready to contribute.
In terms of what he needs to improve, Nkemdiche said his pass rush moves could use work, citing some technical things that will help him turn pressures into sacks.
“Making sure I get the hand off — little things like that, just being more honed into the little things,” he added, “instead of just trying to focus on getting the quarterback and defeating my man fully.
“It’s really paying attention to details and small things that I know can make me a great, great, great player.”
The Cardinals see the potential, and whether Nkemdiche reaches that point in 2016 or later, they believe he will get there. To them, the question is not so much about if he will be good, but just how good he will be.
That’s why Buckner said he did not have to convince the higher ups that Nkemdiche would be a good pick, even though the team already had a considerable amount of talent along the defensive line.
“His athletic ability, his film pushed himself,” he said. “But I did reassure him that he fits in what we do. When you get a talent like that, if he doesn’t fit, you fit your scheme around what he does well, and that’s the kind of talent he is.
“So Steve and our scouts, those guys are football minds. They know what they see, their eyes don’t lie to them. They saw a guy who’s capable of changing your franchise, if he lives up to his abilities. I’m just happy that I’m blessed to be the coach that gets the first crack at him.”