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Retooling the Cardinals’ Defense

Getting the defense ready for new coach Steve Wilks and company.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Steve Wilks has not yet determined whether the 2018 Cardinals will be a base 43 or 34...but the most probable answer is that he and his staff will integrate components of both, depending on the opponent and what emphasis they need to place on stopping the run. Most of the time the Cardinals will be in a hybrid type nickel defense that features a 4 man rush and multiple blitz and cover options.

Wilks loves to play zones---which in today’s game with having to defend all of the RPOs and dual threat QBs---is practically a necessity. The Cardinals’ defense struggled in zones last year, thus Wilks and Al Holcomb will be teaching their zones from scratch and will be doing their best to tighten the passing lanes and increasing the communication and help responsibilities between the linebackers and secondary.


The Cardinals have a stalwart veteran DT in Corey Peters and a quintet of up and coming talents in Olsen Pierre, Robert Nkemdiche, Rodney Gunter, Josh Mauro and Xavier Williams. Of the 5 younger players, Josh Mauro’s contract may be an issue, as Mauro is due a $1.5M roster bonus in March which, if awarded, would put Mauro at $3.3M on the 2018 cap. Mauro is coming off a disappointing season, but his versatility as a 34DE and 43DE is attractive. Olsen Pierre and Robert Nkemdiche can kick out to 43 DE as well, if needed.

The hope here is that the youth at the position will blossom. With all of the more pressing personnel needs, it wouldn’t be a surprise if SWISK do not add any free agents to the mix, unless Wilks makes a push to bring in UFA DT/DE Star Lotulelei (6-2, 315) from Carolina.

A wild card here is 2nd year DT Pasoni Tasini (6-3, 295), who is a disrupting force in short yardage and goal-line situations. The Cardinals would also like to bring along local product Peli Anau (6-3, 282) in the manner in which they did with Olsen Pierre.


With the return of Markus Golden, the Cardinals should be able to boast one of the more fearsome edge rushing tandems in the NFL, with Golden and 2018 Edge POY Chandler Jones. If Wilks employs his 43 on 1st downs it might be wise to keep Golden fresh for passing situations. Thus, the Cardinals will try to re-sign UFA Kareem Martin, who fits best as a base 43 DE on 1st and 2nd downs.

One of the biggest question marks heading into this season is what role SWAH will create for Haason Reddick. Reddick’s speed and quickness off the edge should be significantly more impactful in year 2. Some believe that Reddick will be used inside, but that’s not really his strength. The ideal scenario for Reddick is to play the 43 WOLB and be used as an edge rusher and blitzer in passing situations. The great thing about Reddick is that he could shine as equally in coverage as he can in the pass rush.

Recently signed OLB Praise Martin-Oguike played opposite Reddick on the edge at Temple. Both Reddick and he were TFL (tackle for loss) dynamos in Temple’s scheme. Bryson Albright has a chance to stick if he continues to impress on STs and created a niche for himself in the defense.

Keeping Kareem Martin would be a wise move, but adding to the edge depth in the draft could be a strong consideration later on in the draft, perhaps with a sleeper like Chikwe Obassih (Wisconsin), Ebenezer Ogundeko (Tennessee St.), Lorenzo Carter (Georgia), James Hearns (Louisville), Kemoko Turay (Rutgers), Chad Thomas (Miami), Andrew Brown (Virginia), K.J. Smith (Baylor), Andrew Trumbetti (Notre Dame), Kentavious Street (NC State) or Jayln Holmes (Ohio St.).


One of the most important decisions of the off-season for SWISK is determining whether Deone Bucannon is a good fit in Wilks’ defense. His $8.7M 5th year option figure is pricey, especially in light of DB’s up and down play the past two seasons. In building his upper body, DB has gotten a little top-heavy and as a result he has lost some of the fluidity that was a trademark of his game a few years ago. Wilks’ LBs need to play fast in arriving at the ball quickly versus the run and pinching the seams in zone coverage the way Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis do with such aplomb.

It’s possible that SWAH will believe that DB could be a good fit at SAM or WILL, but it wouldn’t seem like DB is suited to play the MIKE. In the 34 DB still seems to be a good fit at $LB, that is, if he can get his feet and instincts right this year.

It would appear that signing a UFA LB and drafting a LB will be one of the team’s top priorities. In FA, the LBs who jump out are Todd Davis (Broncos), Nigel Bradham (Eagles), Zach Brown (Redskins), Preston Brown (Bills), Avery Williams (Titans) and Tarik Whitehead (Lions).

UFA Josh Bynes (Cardinals), coming off a solid season, would make sense because of his quickness and versatility.

In the draft, there are several excellent LB prospects: Rashaan Evans (Alabama), Malik Jefferson (Texas), Leighton Vander Esch (Boise St.), Micah Kiser (Virginia), Azeem Victor (Washington), Dorian O’Daniel (Clemson) and super sleeper Darius Leonard (South Carolina St.) who is made to order for a SWAH defense.


Wilks likes his corners to be physical in all aspects of CB play---forcing the run, busting up screens, playing press man and hawking the passing lanes and lowering the boom in zones. In this regard, Wilks will try to help Patrick Peterson earn his way back to the All Pro team, by emphasizing aggressive plays and CB fundamentals in tackling and coverage.

On the other side, it is expected that the Cardinals would like to re-sign Tramon Williams and develop Brandon Williams, C.J. Goodwin and Ronald Zamort behind him. It will be fascinating to see if SWAH can develop Brandon Williams and C.J. Goodwin, both of whom have the size and speed SWAH covet. Ronald Zamort should be delighted to play in SWAH’s zone heavy defense, as this is his forte.

The biggest question is---will Patrick Peterson buy into Wilks’ aggressive philosophy? if not, something will have to give. Wilks cannot afford to back down and he is not the type who will.

The second most pressing question about the CB unit is what the Cardinals are going to do about Tyrann Mathieu’s contract. Mathieu had a so-so year as the team’s nickel CB/hybrid SS and now the team must decide whether to award TM his $5M roster bonus in March would would kick in cap figures of $14M (2018), $14M (2019) and $10.5M (2020). By sheer necessity, the team will ask TM to rework his deal. Will TM and his agent be amenable to that?

One may already have the sense that Mathieu is not going to budge on reworking his contract and will make it imperative for the Cardinals to trade or release him. The problem is---the Cardinals would have three days to try to trade him before they would have to make a decision on his roster bonus. Odds are that the teams that are interested in TM would require him to rip up his current contract and work with them on a new one. So, in actuality, TM would be back to square one---only this time, with the prospect of moving on to a new team.


When Budda Baker was inserted as the SS, he immediately set a new tone for the defense with his aggressive style of play. He is a Steve Wilks kind of safety.

At FS, Antoine Bethea showed surprising range and anticipation, which enabled him to lead the team with 5 interceptions.

It would appear that the Cardinals would like to re-sign Tyvon Branch who is an asset in covering TEs and taller WRs from the perimeter or out of the slot. Plus, he can help out as a nickel safety in the zones.

The Cardinals want to develop Rudy Ford as nickel FS and possible heir to the FS position down the line. Harlan Miller was a very good zone CB in college---look for him to be in the mix at CB this year.

But, if Tyrann Mathieu moves on, it would seem very likely that the Cardinals will look to draft a combo CB/S to be an asset in the nickel and dime packages. A quintet of nifty fits for the role in the draft are: Michael Hughes (Central Florida), Jaire Alexander (Louisville), Deatrick Nichols (South Florida), Sean Chandler (Temple) and Levi Wallace (Alabama).