With OLB secure, Cardinals look to fill hole at ILB

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Leading up to the start of free agency Thursday, we’ll evaluate the situation at every position for the Arizona Cardinals. We’ll look at who will return in 2017, who’s set to hit the open market and what the Cardinals need at each position, and we'll throw out a few potential options to fill those open roster spots.

Position: Linebacker

Under contract: OLB Chandler Jones, OLB Markus Golden, OLB Kareem Martin, ILB Deone Bucannon, ILB Gabe Martin, ILB Alani Fua, ILB Zaviar Gooden, ILB Scooby Wright

Pending free agents: OLB Alex Okafor, ILB Kevin Minter, ILB Sio Moore

What’s needed: It’s safe to say the Cardinals are pretty much set at outside linebacker for at least another year, if not the foreseeable future, after they franchised Jones late last month. He and Golden will give Arizona one of the best pass-rushing tandems in the NFL, one that combined for 23.5 sacks last season. While Martin has been slowly developing at outside linebacker since making the move before the 2015 season, the Cardinals could use another pass-rusher who could turn in a multi-sack game on any given Sunday, which Okafor was capable of.

Arizona will need to preserve Jones and Golden to a point early in the season so they don’t burn out later on if the Cardinals are gearing up for a playoff run. And when the Cardinals go with their three-pass-rusher package alongside a defensive tackle, having a good, if not great, third pass-rusher would be helpful.

At inside linebacker, athleticism is one of the Cardinals’ priorities should Minter not return next season. When their full complement of inside linebackers are healthy, the Cardinals have solid depth but not an outright starter. Both Fua and Martin can provide the Cardinals with consistency and reliability. But if Arizona is seeking a replacement for Minter, it might look for someone even more athletic than Minter.

Inside linebacker could be a position Arizona addresses through the draft.

Possible fits: OLB Courtney Upshaw (Falcons), Zach Brown (Bills), Malcolm Smith (Raiders)