TEMPE, Ariz. -- Steve Keim didn’t want to wait for the NFL draft to find an answer to the Arizona Cardinals’ pass-rush woes.
The Cardinals general manager saw the opportunity to acquire one of the best pass rushers in the NFL and took it, trading a former first-round pick. When the Cardinals traded guard Jonathan Cooper to the New England Patriots on Tuesday for defensive end Chandler Jones, they sent a message: They’re going all in on 2016.
On Sunday, defensive coordinator James Bettcher said he wasn’t concerned about the Cardinals pass rush yet.
“It’s a process,” he said. “We all understand it’s a process. Free agency’s a process. That draft’s a process. To be quite honest, how could anyone question coach (Bruce) Arians and Steve and (Cardinals president) Michael (Bidwill) in what they’ve done the last three years?”
The NFL is a copycat league and Keim did what any other general manager with a great offense would do if offered a top-tier pass rusher. He loaded up his defense, which, aside from then-35-year-old Dwight Freeney, struggled to get to the quarterback last season.
Take away Freeney’s eight sacks and Arizona had 28 with a pass rush that consisted of five young, fast, talented edge rushers all drafted or signed out of college in the last three years. The foundation for Arizona’s edge has been built, but Jones adds a pillar that can translate to another win or two, which Arians has said could be the difference between traveling for the NFC Championship Game or hosting it.
Look at two of the last three Super Bowl champions. The league’s best defenses won. In 2014, the Seattle Seahawks had a good offense but a great defense. In February, a great defense led the Denver Broncos to a win in Super Bowl 50 despite an below average offense.
The Cardinals have the offense to win games. They showed that in 2015, winning 13 games for the first time in franchise history while leading the league in yards and finishing second in points scored. The offense was there. The defense is catching up.
“We’ve never been a splash team,” Arians said.
Jones was kind of a splash.
He’s established himself as a top-tier pass rusher. He was fifth in the NFL last year with 12.5 sacks and had 30 over the last three seasons.
With or without Freeney, who has said he wants to return to Arizona next year, adding Jones will have a ripple effect on the defensive front. If he comes in as an every-down player, like he was in New England, Jones will likely draw a lot of attention from offensive lines, leaving Pro Bowler Calais Campbell more one-on-one opportunities. Frostee Rucker, Josh Mauro, Rodney Gunter, Ed Stinson and Corey Peters will complement Campbell and Jones, giving the Cardinals’ defensive line has depth, versatility and the ability to get to the quarterback.
Bettcher believes Alex Okafor will bounce back from a toe injury that ended his 2015 season prematurely. With Jones’ addition, the Cardinals won’t need to move Gunter to defensive end as much, if at all. The player who may be most impacted by Jones is Markus Golden, who will likely move to the left side because Jones played 83 percent of his snaps last season on the right side.
By lunch Tuesday, the Cardinals went from needing to address its pass rush to having a solidified front seven that can compete for a Super Bowl.