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NFL breakout players 2018: Robert Nkemdiche can finally show the Cardinals why he was a 1st-round pick

The third-year pass rusher has yet to record a sack in his career. That should change this year in Arizona’s new defense.

Arizona Cardinals vs San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Robert Nkemdiche was only active for five games during his rookie season in 2016 and managed to make one single, solitary tackle that year. Last year he was at least active for 12 games, but he still didn’t have any starts and only tallied 11 combined tackles, none of them being a sack.

To say the career of the former 29th overall pick is off to a slow start would be a major understatement. But after watching his film from last season, I have to say one thing:

There’s still good reason to believe in Nkemdiche.

For one, a major hindrance so far for Nkemdiche has been a variety of nagging injuries in his first two seasons. These are problems that may keep you out of a game or two and hold you back from playing well, but not major injuries that require a lot of rehab. In 2016 it was an ankle injury and last season it was calf and wrist injuries. However, he should be coming into this season with a clean slate health-wise. If he can finally stay healthy enough to be available for the whole season, we may finally see what he can actually do with all of that talent.

And yes, the guy still has tons and tons of talent.

Another reason for optimism is the coaching change in Arizona. New head coach Steve Wilks is a 4-3 guy, and the switch from a 3-4 should help Nkemdiche showcase his athleticism more. When I watched his film from last season, he was at his best when he was able to line up in the gap and penetrate on the snap of the football. Nkemdiche should have ample opportunity to do just that this season in the new scheme.

I still see a guy on film who can be a dominant interior defensive lineman in the NFL if he ever starts to play with some consistency.

When he is really getting up the field, using his hands well, and reading his keys, the guy can be a friggin’ nightmare for opposing offensive linemen.

The problem up till now has been that his technique is still inconsistent from play to play. At times he looks like the proverbial “blind dog in a meat house” on the field because he’s knocking guys back with reckless abandon. But he isn’t actually making plays because he’s out of his gap, or he can’t escape off the block, or he is looking in the backfield instead of beating his guy.

At the same time, I do believe things will be simpler for him now and that with more playing time, Nkemdiche will finally start to mature as a player. I wouldn’t expect him to look like an All-Pro out of the gate, but I do think the Robert Nkemdiche we see this year, in this scheme, will look much more like the beast many thought he might eventually turn into in the NFL.

I believe he will make his biggest strides as a pass rusher this season, and I expect him to have no fewer than five sacks this year — which would obviously be a huge leap in production for him.

Confidence Level: Moderate