The Arizona Cardinals lost more than a game on Sunday. Arizona also lost defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche for the season. Nkemdiche left the game against the Lions with a knee injury after just 22 snaps. Head coach Steve Wilks did not go into detail regarding the injury other than stating the injury would require surgery and result in Nkemdiche being placed on the injured reserve list. The season ending injury raises questions regarding Nkemdiche’s future with the Cardinals beyond this season.
Can He Play a Full Season
Drafted in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, Cardinals general manager Steve Keim took a bit of a risk in selecting the talented defensive lineman. Nkemdiche flashed first round talent during his time at Ole Miss, playing three seasons, and being named to the All-American second team by the Associated Press. However, during his three season, Nkemdiche played in just 29 of the possible 39 games with Ole Miss. It is also important to note he was suspended for the 2016 Sugar Bowl game against Oklahoma State after falling out of a fourth floor window. It was later reported Nkemdiche broke the window, climbed over a wall, then fell about 15 feet.
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The incident and durability question marks allowed the Cardinals to select Nkemdiche late in the first round. Including this season, Nkemdiche has played in 27 of the possible 45 games. He has missed an average of six games a season since entering the NFL. Missing games as a young and developing player is the best way to slow down or even prevent growth. It is also a waste of valuable salary cap and roster space.
Missing games typically has a negative effect on a player’s production. During his first two seasons, Nkemdiche struggled to find regular playing time. Former head coach, Bruce Arians, once challenged his defensive lineman to be stronger and play with better energy. It is telling to see that during his first two seasons, Nkemdiche started none of the 17 games he played in
In 2016, Nkemdiche played in just five games and totaled one tackle, one quarterback hit, and one pass defense. In twelve games last season, he increased his totals to 11 tackles, one tackle for loss and two quarterback hits. Nkemdiche also both forced and recovered a fumble, which resulted in a 21 yard score for the defensive tackle. This season he has shown some pass rushing ability with 4.5 sacks through ten games played. Slowed by injuries, he started just six games this season while finishing with 32 tackles including nine tackles for loss and seven quarterback hits.
Value to the Team
Typically a first round selection gets the opportunity to at least finish his rookie contract. Nkemdiche has struggled to find his way to the field, let alone attempt to produce like a team’s top pick. The defensive tackle is signed through the end of next season, the final year of his initial deal. Arizona is estimated to have roughly $72 million in cap space entering the 2019 off-season but have as many as 10 starters scheduled to become free agents. Nkemdiche is scheduled to account for a cap number of about $2.7 million in 2019. Cutting the former first round pick would save the Cardinals about $1.6 million.
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In a normal off-season the salary cap implications surrounding Nkemdiche would likely sway the Cardinals to release him. However, a significant amount available to spend, the team could choose to allow Nkemdiche to return for the final year of his contract. Arizona will need to decide on the future of another defensive tackle, Rodney Gunter, who is a free agent after this season. If the Cardinals choose to re-sign Gunter, he would likely command near $2-$3 million a year. Arizona could view Gunter as the more consistent option for defensive tackle next to Corey Peters. Should that be the case, it wouldn’t be a shock for the Cardinals to sign an additional player in free agency while using the draft to fill the position.
What Happens Now
With the news of Nkemdiche’s injury, the Cardinals are forced to take an extensive look at what they intend to do with their young defensive tackle. Over the next four months, Arizona has to decide if it is worth keeping Nkemdiche around or if it is time to cut ties with their former first round selection. With Keim and Wilks feeling the pressure of fixing the roster, it is anyone’s guess what happens after the season. Nkemdiche’s 2018 is now over, time will tell if Sunday was his last appearance as an Arizona Cardinal.