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Arizona Cardinals Defensive Framework and OC Search

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The Cardinals have begun to construct their staff, but one decision looms.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals-Press Conference Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I believe that in Steve Wilks, Michael Bidwill and Steve Keim got the best and most dynamic head coach in this year’s pool. Hands down. The majority of the other candidates are strong tacticians---but do they have the innate ability to motivate 53 men? Keim said that he and Michael Bidwill were focused on finding the right kind of leader, regardless of what side of the ball he has previously coached. Bidwill made a stunning point about Wilks’ football IQ and EQ (emotional quotient) as the decisive factors of this hire and the main reasons why Wilks separated himself from the field.

Already, Wilks’ defensive staff is taking shape. He is bringing Al Holcomb, Carolina’s popular young LB coach, with him as his DC. The stalwart Carolina defense hinged on superb LB play and that should be the case in Arizona as they address the position in free agency and the draft. Keim’s first round draft picks last year, LB Haason Reddick already fits Wilks’ and Holcomb’s LB mode because of his speed and versatility. There is a decent chance that Deone Bucannon fits their mold as well, although Bucannon still needs to develop as a downhill tackler and cover ILB. A difficult decision needs to made about Bucannon’s $8.7M option.

There are some good FA LBs on the market this year, some of which would seem to fit Wilks’ LB mode, such as Todd Davis (Broncos), Nigel Bradham (Eagles), Zach Brown (Redskins), Demario Davis (jets), Christian Jones (Bears), Josh Bynes (Cardinals), Preston Brown (Bills) and Kevin Pierre-Louis (Chiefs).

What is extremely exciting is the thought of what Wilks will be able to do with the talent in the Cardinals’ secondary. Josh Norman has already notified Patrick Peterson that Wilks is going to take Peterson’s game to a whole new stratosphere.

The hiring of Wilks comes at a perfect time for Peterson. Clearly, Wilks is going to have to address the RCB position through FA and/or the draft. Wilks has said for years in Carolina that he prefers CBs with size, speed and run-forcing thumping ability. He had that in Norman and then they drafted for that two years ago when they added James Bradberry and Daryl Worley, both of whom check in at around 6-1, 210 pounds. Can Wilks turn around Brandon Williams who has has similar size and speed? Tramon Williams fits the bill and could be a strong FA option, albeit it he is turning 35 this year. UFAs who could be of interest: Bashaud Breeland (Redskins), Marcus Williams (Texans), Kyle Fuller (Bears), Ross Cockrell (Giants) and Patrick Robinson (Eagles).

At safety, one would expect ballhawking thumper Budda Baker to thrive under Wilks and newly appointed safety coach Dave Merritt (who helped develop Landon Collins into an All-Pro in his second season, setting a Giants’ record for safety tackles with 125). That’s an instant match. Antoine Bethea is coming off one of his best seasons and is very excited to work for Wilks. The biggest question mark is what Wilks will want to do with Tyrann Mathieu, who fits Wilks’ nickel CB role to a tee, but perhaps not at $14M a season. If Wilks is able to convince the Honey Badger to rework his contact, expect Wilks to maximize Honey Badger’s strengths, which would mean no more reps at FS, a position that does not suit Mathieu’s skills set or instincts.

Up front, Wilks has hired DLC Don Johnson to try to fire this group up. Wilks vows to hire coaches who can “relate to different personalities.” Thus, could Don Johnson be the coach who brings Robert Nkemdiche, Olsen Pierre, Rodney Gunter and Xavier Williams into prominence? On the edge, Chandler Jones and Markus Golden should be very happy with Wilks’ aggressive style of play-calling via a variety of blitzes from multiple alignments. It is possible that Wilks may want to sign Carolina’s UFA DT Star Lotulelei to a multi-year contract.

The Cardinals now face what should be the most important decision (other than hiring Wilks and finding their QB) of this off-season---who is going to be the OC?

The good news is that former Cardinals’ tackle and Panthers’ OLC Ray Brown is joining the staff. In addition, the Cardinals denied the Seahawks permission to speak with assistant WR coach Kevin Garver who for the past five years has been a favorite of Larry Fitzgerald’s.

But getting the OC selection right is of paramount importance.

Rumor had it during the interview process that Steve Wilks wanted John DeFilippo to be his OC. However, since Wilks’ hiring there has been no mention of JDF---perhaps intentionally? DeFilippo could bring the same type of energy and excitement to the offensive side of the ball that Wilks and Holcomb will bring to the defense.

Some pundits are saying that it would be best for Wilks to hire an OC like Mike McCoy who has previous head coaching experience---to be someone Wilks could lean on as he grows on the job. While such a thought is understandable, Wilks, having spent six years as Ron Rivera’s right hand man in Carolina will not need to lean on any of his assistants. Wilks knows the ropes and he knows the pitfalls.

Last year, the Broncos thought that their new defensive minded HC Vance Joseph could lean on newly re-appointed OC Mike McCoy, but six games into the season McCoy was fired because the offense was over-complicated and could not get on track. The question is---why would the Cardinals choose to put Wilks in a similar situation? Has McCoy since changed his offense and his modus operandi?

The Cardinals interviewed Darrell Bevell, the Seahawks’ recently fired OC. With Bevell there are seemingly more tangible positives. He knows the NFC West. He helped develop QB Russell Wilson to the point where Wilson led the NFL in TD passes (34) this year. When Bevell had a good OL, his rode a stud RB to prominence. Yes there was that infamous play call in Super Bowl L. But, Bevell also does something the Cardinals have not quite done very well in recent years---he runs a dynamic 2 minute offense. Perhaps the best in the league, next to the Patriots’.

Problem is---Bevell is in Minnesota today interviewing for the Vikings’ OC job.

Thus, if the Vikings hire Bevell and Wilks no longer has John DeFilippo to turn to, what next?

Wilks said he wants to have all the coaches hired by the Super Bowl.

But---this hire is too important to rush. Gather more candidates. Keep the phones open and take applications. Bidwill and Keim can cast their wide net on the remaining OC candidates. Explore the college ranks---it’s becoming vogue now to help young QBs assimilate into the NFL by adopting plays they were comfortable running in college, like the Eagles have done with Carson Wentz.

Take the time---schedule more reservations at Steak 44---and get the right play caller.