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Cardinals Lacking at Linebacker?

In Carolina, Steve Wilks had the luxury of centering his 43 defense around the dynamic linebacker trio of Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson. In Wilks’ version of the 43, the linebackers have to play with speed, instinct and toughness in defending the run—-and they need to be fast and athletic enough to cover TEs and RBs, that is when they aren’t shutting down passing angles in zone coverage.

When Wilks decided he was going to switch the Cardinals’ base defense to the 43, Josh Bynes was re-signed to play the middle and to be sandwiched between former first round draftees Deone Bucannon and Haason Reddick. Bynes made good use of his 236 snaps on defense last year, enough to warrant him a new contract. His PFF grade was 69.9 (79.9 vs. the run and 59.9 in pass coverage)—-the highest grade of any of the Cardinals’ linebackers, albeit on the fewest snaps.

Deone Bucannon played 704 snaps last year and struggled mightily (55.0 vs. the run, 44.2 in coverage—-for a grade of 47.8, ranked as the #78 LB).

Haason Reddick played 444 snaps last year at 34 ILB and OLB and also struggled versus the run (53.2), but better (65.5) in coverage——for an overall grade of 54.0.

The Cardinals elected to retain Bucannon on a 5th year option at $8.7M this season and have been touting him as the new leader of the defense. For a few years now Cardinals’ LB coach Larry Foote has called Bucannon “my man” and has hyped him as a budding star.

In a recent radio interview, Foote explained that Haason Reddick has all the physical tools, but was thinking too much on the field last year in fear of blowing assignments.

The blown assignment explanation will no longer hold any weight in 2018 as all of the Cardinals’ linebackers will have “one gap” responsibilities in the running game—-and either a man to man, zone or blitz assignment on each play.

To be candid, I think that Bucannon did little to warrant a $8.7M contract this season. He is one of the most erratic linebackers I have watched in Cardinal red. He consistently gets lost in the shuffle and he is an unreliable tackler and cover man. Every now and then me makes a splash play—-but he plays too much on his heels to be consistently productive. Hopefully, the new coaching staff will have a profound impact on his play.

Bucannon burst onto the scene as a rookie and seemed to be thriving so well at 34 $LB that he became a reference point around the NFL of the new age “hybrid” kind of undersized, but hyper-aggressive linebacker. Bucannon hit his stride in 2015 when he recorded 112 tackles (93 solo), 3 sacks, 3 pas breakups, 1 pick-six TD (39 yards).

After the Cardinals’ defense unraveled in the 2015 NFC Championship game, Bucannon has not been the same. A nagging foot injury didn’t help, but as was the case with some of the players around him, like Tyrann Mathieu, the aggressive and fly to the ball spirit of his play was conspicuously absent at times. If Steve Wilks and Al Holcomb (who is a LB guru) can rejuvenate the Bucannon of 2015, then the Cardinals defense could be dynamic.

I was surprised that Reddick did not make more tackles last year. Sure, I understand that he was overthinking things, but when a linebacker has a clear shot at the football, pure instincts should take over. I did not see those kind of smash-mouth instincts from Reddick. On his college tapes, I saw a relentless, physical edge player who played fast and aggressively and had a knack for finishing plays. That player has yet to show up in Arizona.

What encouraged me the most about Reddick is that he has the ability to be a superior man to man cover linebacker. There were times early last season in practice where he was the only player who could run with David Johnsion step for step. That is saying something.

Where I worry a little about Reddick, as with the other linebackers, is whether he can be decisive and anticipatory enough to be a strength in zone coverage—-this may take time and hundreds of reps.

What surprised me as well was the Cardinals retention of Larry Foote as linebacker coach. Foote’s forte is in his understanding of the nuances of the 34 defense. However, his linebackers, as much as he has hyped them, did not play consistently well for him the past few years. For example, he was not able to help turn former 2nd round pick Kevin Minter into a core player. That was a big miss.

Put it this way—-the best and most productive and surest tacklers on the Cardinals the last three years have been the safeties, not the linebackers.

If Larry Foote’s linebackers start to sniff out and finish tackles the way he did—-look out!

However, another concern is the lack of attention Steve Keim paid to the depth at linebacker. It was one thing to devote the 2018 to retooling the offense—-but to then neglect the position in free agency is mind-boggling. Maybe that’s the price the team plays for ponying up $8.7M for Bucannon.

Larry Foote raved about Scooby Wright a couple of weeks ago, but at the start of camp, Wright wasn’t even running with the second team. It was curious as to why Foote was hyping up Wright because to be frank, Wright does not fit the profile of a Wilks’ 43 linebacker.

The three second team players that have the best chance to make a splash are Jeremy Cash, Edmond Robinson and UCFA Dennis Gardeck. If you go back and watch Cash’s college tapes at Duke, he will jump out at you. He attacks the football like he is shot out of a bazooka. Where he needs to prove that he belongs is in pass coverage.

Foote calls Robinson “Newberry” and Gardeck “Sioux Falls” in reference to the small colleges they attended. Robinson started two games as a rookie for the Vikings in 2015 and recorded 10 tackles and pass breakup. He’s bounced around since then from the Vikings to the Jets—-but has not carved a niche, not even as a special teamer.

Gardeck was a Division II All-American dynamo on the edge, turning his 4.5 speed at 6-0, 243 pounds into 345 career tackles, 32 sacks and an eye-popping 57.5 tackles for loss. The early word from training camp is that Gardeck is standing out and making more than just a small college name for himself.

Over the past few says the Cardinals have been looking to add more linebacker depth via free agency, where, this time of year, the pickings are slim. Three players they are working out are ex-Saint/49er/Viking Gerald Hodges, ex-Colt/Steeler Sean Spence and former ASU big hitter D.J. Calhoun. Thus, we might see a signing or two over the next couple of days.

Very likely the Cardinals will need to make a couple of moves during the pre-season to address the linebacker position. If the current projected starters struggle, it may force Steve Wilks to play his nickel as his base—-and that, of course, is not ideal. But, if his best and surest tacklers are in the nickel, then Wilks will have no other choice than to play to the team’s strengths.