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Cards: Time to Count on Reddick

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Seattle Seahawks v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

The 2020 season brings a couple of important “firsts” for the Arizona Cardinals’ Haason Reddick.

This will be the first time in his 4 years with the Cardinals that Reddick will be playing in the same defensive system under the same defensive coordinator.

This will be the first time that Reddick will be playing his most natural position of 34 SOLB.

Flashing back to Reddick’s rookie season, it was because of Deone Buccanon’s foot injury that Reddick suddenly found himself taking all his reps at WILB.

In many ways this was the confluence of two failures regarding two of Steve Keim’s 1st round picks—-first with converted college safety Deone Bucannon being forced into playing WILB, thanks back then to Darryl Washington’s fallout with the NFL and the team—-and then secondly with converted edge rusher Haason Reddick being forced into Bucannon’s WILB role.

Both Bucannon and Reddick are superb athletes—-but effective play at the 34 WILB position, dubbed the $LB (money LB position) by the Cardinals, requires much more than sheer athleticism.

This past season when the Cardinals’ new DC, Vance Joseph, came to the realization that Haason Reddick was not a natural fit at WILB, Joseph said a very smart thing. He said that converting good athletes to ILB in the NFL who have never played ILB before is a huge gamble because it typically takes a player years of reps and experience at the position to develop the proper reads and instincts.

In the NFL, ILBers have to react in a split second when trying to read whether the play is a run or a pass. Any split second hesitation can lead to a chunk yard plays versus the defense. As we know, in the NFL the best defense s in the NFL close in on the ball in split seconds.

One of the wisest moves Joseph made was moving Haason Reddick out to 34 SOLB—-which coincided with the team releasing Terrell Suggs—-and just so happened to coincide with Joseph’s defense finally showing sone much needed improvement while winning 2 of the last 3 games.

Kliff Kingsbury is very excited about the move. He likes the fit and the player.

When I first started doing my mock drafts, I had the Cardinals signing a star OLB like the Steelers’ Bud Dupree—-but then when I realized what a chunk this takes out of the $67M available cap space the Cardinals have (actually now more like $56M after accounting for Fitz’s new contract)—-in light of all of the other major needs—-it became quickly apparent to me that the best thing that could happen for the Cardinals, Steve Keim, Vance Joseph and Haason Reddick would be for Reddick to show why the Cardinals drafted him with the #13 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

I keep hearing the argument that the Reddick at OLB experiment will fail because when he was switched over the OLB as a rookie, after struggling big-time at WILB, Reddick didn't exactly light the world on fire as an edge rusher and only had 2.5 sacks and 6 QB hits to show for his efforts.

But, this is a moot argument when one considers that Reddick spent all of the training camp and the first half of the season taking all of his reps at ILB. Not only was Reddick learning to adjust to the speed and physicality of the NFL, he was learning a brand new position and if you go back and listen to Reddick’s interviews he explained how overwhelming the learning process was—-just alone from the standpoint of learning what his responsibility was on each play call.

By the time he was switched over the OLB, not only was his confidence shaken, he hadn’t had the reps or the training to play on the edge of the 34 defense. He had to learn a brand new set of responsibilities and the various stunt and blitz packages and techniques.

To expect Reddick or any player put in that position as rookie to step right in and shine is completely unfair and unrealistic.

For the first time in his 4 year career, Haason Reddick gets to spend the off-season training to play the 34 SOLB position. And he has the ultimate mentor to train with in Chandler Jones.

Having received valuable reps at OLB the last few games of this past season, Reddick already has a head start on showing a full command of the responsibilities and reads.

It just so happened that Haason Reddick had his best performance of the season in the Cardinals best win, their 24-10 drubbing of the 11-5 Seahawks at Century Link Field in Week 16.

Reddick registered 5 pressures on Russell Wilson, and was particularly impressive in not letting Wilson break contain, and one one occasion when Wilson tried to break contain to Reddick’s side, Reddick showed excellent agility and stopped Wilson in his tracks. It says something when a player can do that in a one on one open field matchup with Russell Wilson.

Because Reddick has good speed (4.52) and athleticism in pass coverage, like he did versus the Seahawks where he earned a 62.8 pass coverage grade, this allowed Vance Joseph for the first time all year to play Chandler Jones exclusively as the “Bandit” (WOLB) edge rusher—-where Jones was no longer asked to take numerous snaps in coverage during the course of a game—-because coverage was not Terell Suggs’ forte by any stretch—-thus Jones was playing the “SAM” (SOLB) role. Ugh.

The other common theme amongst Reddick’s naysayers is that “he’s too small” to be a good pass rusher from the SOLB position. That “he can’t set the edge” and is “a liability versus the run.”

OK—-let’s address these concerns—-first, let’s talk about his pass rushing potential.

Sure, at 6-1, 235 pounds this pass season, Reddick does not appear to have the ideal length and size of some of the best edge rushers in the NFL. But, now that Reddick is transitioning to OLB, he’s going to put on an added 10-15 pounds this off-season.

Von Miller is 6-3, 250—-and Reddick’s Combine numbers were nearly identical to Miller’s.

Shaq Barrett is 6-2, 250—-and he just led the NFL in sacks with 19 12 . It’s taken Barrett 5 years to get on track, because he is now finally starting and is playing almost every snap.

But the best player comp for Reddick, in my opinion, is Dee Ford. Dee Ford is 6-2, 243, and it took him 3 years before he had 10 sacks in a season—-but now he’s one of the more feared edge rushers in the game. In fact, Reddick had more sacks in his first two seasons (6.5) than Ford (5.5)...and almost as many as Shaq Barrett (7.0).

It took James Harrison 4 seasons to break through as an edge rusher when he recorded 8.5 sacks in 2007, then followed that with three straight double digit sacks seasons from 2008-2010.

Let’s remind ourselves that James Harrison played at 6-0, 243.

As far as setting the edge and being a so-called liability versus the run—-one of the silver linings of Reddick’s time at ILB is the improvements he made as a tackler. He delivered on 156 tackles the past two years.

Of the three games Reddick started at SOLB, his run defense grades were 67.3 (vs. Browns), 52.6 (vs. Seahawks) and 89.0 (vs. Rams). His 89.0 versus the Rams was the highest run defense grade from a Cardinals’ OLB this season.

Plus—-and this is a HUGE plus—-Reddick has the feet and the speed to be an asset in pass coverage, which is easier for him on the edge. By the way, Reddick earned his two highest pass coverage grades of the season at SOLB, scoring 62.0 versus the Browns and 62.8 versus the Seahawks.

Plus—-with outside edge contain being such an important factor in our own division with Russell Wilson, with all of the bootlegging and sprint out passes the Rams design for Jared Goff, and with all of the wide runs the 49ers employ with their speedy RBs and WRs—-having a player on the edge as fast and athletic as Reddick is an asset.

Some Cardinals’ fans are clamoring to bring Markus Golden back at $10M a year—-now—-I was right there with you and the Golden supporters last year in urging Steve Keim to re-sign him.

But—-what I did not know then—-is how often Vance Joseph relies on his SOLB to drop back into pass coverage.

If I had known that then—-I would not have pushed as hard to re-sign Markus Golden because he doesn’t fit Vance Joseph’s SOLB criteria—-not nearly the way Haason Reddick does. Just look at their 40 times at the Combine: Reddick: 4.52; Golden 4.9. Golden’s pass coverage grade this past season with the Giants was 49.7. His other grades were in the 60s—-which is commendable, as was his 12 sacks—-but at 6-2, 265 pounds, Golden is better suited to play 43 DE.

Therefore, I think it’s wise for the Cardinals to put their faith in Haason Reddick to be the starter at SOLB this season. He fits Vance Jospeh’s SOLB criteria and with a strong off-season, Reddick could be one of the happiest and most surprising stories of the 2020 season. Let’s remind ourselves the edge player we were getting when we draft Reddick:

With counting on Reddick as the starter at SOLB in mind, I thought it would good to improve the overall talent at the OLB position, which is why in my most recent mock I have the Cardinals taking Utah DE Bradley Anae, who I think is big enough and fast enough to play both SOLB and WOLB. Check out his tape here:

The other 3rd round OLB prospect I have my eye on is Alex Highsmith of Charlotte. In Highsmith’s case, i think he’s a classic 34 SOLB. I am eager to see how he times at the Combine.

One final thought on Haason Reddick—-I will bet you that if the Cardinals keep messing things up with Reddick, Reddick’s college coach, Matt Rhule, will make sure Reddick becomes a Carolina Panther asap. Rhule sure knew how to get the most out of him.

The Cardinals have a chance to do the same this year and hopefully for years to come.