For the Arizona Cardinals this season, “next man up” has been more than a tired football-ism. It hasn’t just been something a coach says robotically or black-and-white words out of a color commentator’s mouth.
No, that mantra has been a way of living, breathing and winning. Somehow head coach Bruce Arians and his staff have squeezed every ounce of available talent out of a backup quarterback (Drew Stanton), an aging middle linebacker (Larry Foote) and a discarded defensive tackle (Tommy Kelly) among others.
But one of the most impressive uprisings has come from an outside linebacker who isn’t advanced in age, and he won’t be thanked for his dutiful service and shuffled out after one season.
Instead, Alex Okafor could quickly grow into a pass-rushing pillar, a journey that’s already started.
Okafor was a fourth-round selection in 2013 after a standout collegiate career with the Texas Longhorns, recording 23 sacks and 34 tackles for a loss over 40 games. But immediately his NFL career was derailed due to a torn biceps. He missed nearly his entire rookie season (he played only five snaps) and then three games to start 2014 while battling through a quadriceps issue.
Back in the spring, Okafor was a late training camp cut candidate. That was the speculation in May from ESPN.com’s Josh Weinfuss, and he probably would had been right if the rest of the Cardinals' defensive front didn’t start breaking and generally disintegrating.
First defensive end Darnell Dockett tore his ACL. Then outside linebacker John Abraham sustained a concussion and eventually had to retire, and fellow linebacker Matt Shaughnessy crumbled with a knee injury (he went on the short-term injured reserve and recently returned).
By default Okafor was more than needed when he started his first career game in Week 6. A linebacker who had logged a mere 15 career snaps at that point was desperately relied upon. His response?
|Alex Okafor's immediate impact on Cardinals pass rush|
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Despite missing the first three games and playing only minimally in Week 5 (he was eased in with 10 snaps), Okafor has accounted for a quarter of the Cardinals’ sacks since his triumphant arrival as a starter.
Overall he’s been on the field for 531 snaps, which is roughly 350 fewer than a regular starter who hasn’t missed any time this season (Foote, for example, has logged 883 snaps). So keep that in mind as I tell you Okafor’s seven sacks have him tied with defensive end Calais Campbell for the team lead. He’s also fourth in quarterback hurries (18) and second in hits (4).
That’s a lot with little, and Okafor has gone from sizzling to white hot recently. Over the Cardinals’ last five games, he has five sacks along with 11 defensive stops, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
He's two things, and not in the weird Old Spice commercial sort of way. After playing mostly as a defensive end for the Longhorns, he was asked to make the transition to standing up and rushing as an outside linebacker. His job description then had two added secondary elements: being relied upon to seal the edge more often in run defense and disrupting short passes in coverage.
Turns out having natural athleticism makes both of those tasks pretty easy to pick up. We saw the first one in the preseason, when Okafor did more than just seal the edge to halt Minnesota Vikings running back Matt Asiata. He finished the play too, hauling Asiata down deep in the backfield.
A play that started with Okafor gaining leverage right away over Vikings tight end Rhett Ellison ended with a five-yard loss. Okafor has recorded nine runs stops, again per PFF.
In coverage he's shown the required anticipation to make game-altering plays. That is exactly what happened midway through the third quarter in Week 14 during a win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
With the Chiefs leading 14-9, they were on Arizona’s 29-yard line and threatening to add some insurance points, possibly putting the game out of reach. Okafor had his hand in the dirt this time as one of four down linemen. He was aligned wide to quarterback Alex Smith’s right and rushed from the inside after looping around with delayed pressure.
But although he may not have been used as a linebacker on this play, Okafor still showed the instincts that make him effective in that role.
He was stopped by Chiefs guard Zach Fulton, but Okafor continued his pursuit as Smith scanned and tried to work the right side of the field. He watched the quarterback's eyes closely, ready to pounce.
Then Okafor reacted the second Smith’s gaze turned. In an instant he went from a pass-rusher to acting as a linebacker in coverage while shutting off a passing lane.
When Smith’s eyes darted to the middle, Okafor planted and sprinted to his left.
The rest was a matter of timing and raw athletic ability as Okafor leaped to finish the job, grabbing Smith’s pass and returning it the other way 26 yards. Five plays later Cardinals quarterback Drew Stanton threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jaron Brown, which would stand as the game-winner.
Making life unpleasant for opposing quarterbacks is still Okafor’s primary function. He’s playing under a rookie contract that pays him the NFL equivalent of a few Oreos for the next two years. Looking beyond this season then, the Cardinals’ pass rush could quickly return to its 2013 form when Dockett is healthy and ready to meet Okafor at the quarterback.
But for now a young linebacker will remain one of the Cardinals’ central defenders, and he’ll do it while still developing into something more.