Robert Nkemdiche was the consensus number one player in the nation when he committed to Ole Miss back in 2012. Despite low statistics, Nkemdiche was named first team All-SEC and second team All-American in his junior year. He also got arrested for marijuana possession that year, and soon after decided to declare for the draft.
Considered to be a boom or bust prospect with plenty of upside, Nkemdiche fell to the 29th overall pick when the Cardinals took him. At the time, he was expected to pair with Calais Campbell and Chandler Jones to create a fearsome pass rush in Arizona. That never quite happened, and Nkemdiche was cut by the team Sunday after showing up to camp overweight.
It’s rock bottom for a player who was once considered to be the next great defensive tackle. Now that he’s available, and presumably at a cheap price, the question must be asked: should the Cowboys have any interest?
Let’s start with the obvious: Dallas does not need Nkemdiche. Counting the versatile Tyrone Crawford, the Cowboys currently have nine players listed as a defensive tackle on their roster. They’ve never kept more than six in the Jason Garrett era, and there are already at least four who seem like roster locks between Crawford, Antwaun Woods, Maliek Collins, and top draft pick Trysten Hill. Free agent signee Chris Covington has also gotten significant buzz early on.
So right off the bat it seems that if the Cowboys did take a flyer on Nkemdiche, he would have a longshot bid at making the final roster. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Dallas will rule him out. Garrett has earned a reputation for churning the bottom of the roster with competition, and usually does so by acquiring former first-round picks who haven’t panned out elsewhere. Just on the current roster, there’s Tavon Austin, Amari Cooper, and Robert Quinn. And in the past the team got significant contributions from Rolando McClain and Darren McFadden, among others.
So it’s entirely possible that the Cowboys could consider Nkemdiche even with their full load of defensive tackles already. But would he be a good fit? It’s possible, at least from a playing standpoint. Nkemdiche has had issues off the field beyond his marijuana possession arrest in college. In early June, Nkemdiche was arrested for speeding and driving with a suspended license. The Cowboys would have to do some vetting to make sure he fits their “right kind of guy” mantra.
But as a player, Nkemdiche offers huge potential, especially as a 3-technique defensive tackle in Rod Marinelli’s scheme. At 6’4” and 296 (his listed playing weight before being cut), Nkemdiche fits the basic size requirement. He has 34” arms, longer than rookie Hill’s arms, and his 4.87 40-yard dash was blazing fast for his position. He had nearly identical combine results to Hill’s in the vertical and broad jumps and the bench press.
Playing in the Cardinals’ 3-4 scheme, Nkemdiche struggled early and often. He was asked to be a two gap defender far too often for his skill set, and that resulted in the first-round pick tallying just 12 total tackles, one tackle for loss, and zero sacks in his first two years. But in 2018, new (and since fired) head coach Steve Wilks brought an aggressive 4-3 scheme that fit Nkemdiche better. As a result, Nkemdiche tied for the second on the team with 4.5 sacks through just 10 games. He also added 32 tackles, nine tackles for loss, and seven quarterback hits.
Nkemdiche tore his ACL in Week 14 and that ended his season. As such, he began training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform list as he was still rehabbing, which partially contributed to his being overweight. It should be noted that before the injury, Nkemdiche was on pace for 7.5 sacks, which would have tied with Chicago Pro Bowler Akiem Hicks for eighth most among defensive tackles. Still, any potential interest from the Cowboys - or any team for that matter - would depend largely on a medical examination of his knee.
But if the Cowboys want to bring in more competition at defensive tackle, especially at a cheap price, Nkemdiche should be a very attractive option for them. He might not make the roster in the end, but the financial risk should be so low that it wouldn’t really matter. And on the off chance he does make the roster, then the Cowboys would have just one more athletic pass rusher on the interior of the line, of which you can never have too many.