Arizona Cardinals Training Camp Preview: Inside Linebacker

The meat and potatoes of any defense is it's linebackers and most importantly the middle linebacker(s). They're expected to lead the team in tackles and be an overall leader for the defense. The Cardinals have two experienced tackling machines in the middle of their defense and the depth behind the starters should be enough to keep everyone fresh and quell any panic that should arise if a starter goes down for a game or two. This unit could have the least amount of question marks of the entire defense but are they strong enough to cover the deficiencies in other areas?

Karlos Dansby: Dansby's been a starter since his rookie season and he's gotten better every season even though he's yet to play a full 16 games. It's not a stretch to say that his best football is still ahead of him though. Everyone knows his contract status and how that should motivate him this season. Anything short of a career year would have to be judged as a disappoint. He won't top the eight sacks that he had in 2006 but he should be able to easily top 120 tackles and pick up a handful of sacks. He may not be a Pro Bowl caliber player but he's a balanced player who plays equally well against the run and pass. Hayes_medium

Gerald Hayes: The outside linbackers get the love and Dansby gets the pub but Hayes is the only Cardinal who had 90 tackles in each of the past two seasons. He's not flashy or dynamic but he's been consistent and reliable in his two seasons as a starter. He's a take-down tackler and excels at stopping the run and is developing as a pass rushers. As long as he's healthy you can pencil Hayes in for another season of nearly 100 tackles, a handful of sacks and a play or two that changes a game (first Seattle game). The best thing is that he's still young (27) and, like Dansby, is still getting better. He's under contract through 2011 and the Cardinals will get the best out him throughout his prime.

Monty Beisel: Beisel's the top backup and he's got plenty of experience to get the job done if the Cardinals need a spot-starter for a game or two. He's never started a full season but he's started nearly 20 games over the past four seasons and averaged nearly six tackles a start. He totaled 42 tackles in 2007 despite only starting two games and is a valuable special teams player. He's a solid tackler who is better against the run and he's at his best when running 'down hill' to the ball carrier. Beisel's entering the final year of his current contract and should be motivated to prove to the team that he'll remain a productive player into his early thirties (turns 30 next month).

Matt_stewart_medium Matt Stewart: Stewart signed a one year deal in the offseason and comes to the Cardinals with 60 games of starting experience with the Browns and Falcons. He's not the biggest or most athletic player in the league but he's got a great work ethic, awareness and instincts. His strength is dropping back in coverage and could see most of his playing time on passing downs. He'll get his share of time on special teams coverage units as well.

Ali Highsmith: The deck is always stacked against an undrafted free agent and while that's the case with Highsmith, there is still a chance that he could win a roster spot. If he can learn both the inside and outside backer spots, he'd have a better chance of making the team out of camp. The biggest knock on him has been his lack of both height (just under 6'0) and size (230) and he's already put on some weight from playing days (223) at LSU. He's an instinctive player though who plays faster than his forty time (4.7) would indicate. It'll be a while before we know if he can shed blocks at the professional level but for now he should be able to star on special teams.

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The Cardinals don't have a superstar at inside linebacker but they do have a talented, experienced, deep group of guys who can shut down the run and defend the pass. Their all decently young and it wouldn't be a surprise if Dansby and Hayes had career years and led a surprisingly good defensive front seven. Beisel and Stewart should star on special teams and Highsmith will open some eyes during camp.

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