The troubles of finding two quality inside linebackers that excel in coverage has been a daunting task for the Cardinals over the last six NFL seasons.
General Manager Steve Keim invested a lot of high draft picks at the position that did not end up working in his favor.
- 2013: Kevin Minter - 2nd Round
- 2014: Deone Bucannon - 1st Round
- 2017: Haason Reddick - 1st Round
Minter was a one-dimensional run-stuffing linebacker that dealt with his share of injuries to start his career. Bucannon was a safety-turned hybrid linebacker that was productive early but struggled with the rigors of the position due to being undersized. The Cardinals wanted an athletic linebacker and settled for Reddick but he simply could not handle coverage duties as an off-ball linebacker. The team has not had a dominant duo on the inside since Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington in 2013.
The Cardinals did however get their money’s worth in last season’s top free agent acquisition Jordan Hicks, who finished the year with 150 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, three interceptions, and two forced fumbles. He was not particularly stout in coverage at times but as he got more comfortable within Vance Joseph’s defense, his play flourished. The first year of Hick’s four-year $36 million contract was a success. Now, they need to find a starter to play next to him.
After Reddick’s struggles last season, Joe Walker took his place and played well. He finished the year with 65 tackles, five tackles for loss, and a forced fumble. Not only that, he has been a quality special teams player the last two seasons. He is an impending free agent but should be an inexpensive player the Cardinals would like to re-sign for depth.
Other inside linebackers on the roster includes Dennis Gardeck, Zeke Turner, Tanner Vallejo, and Keishawn Bierria.
Gardeck and Turner will likely not crack the starting lineup unless a serious injury occurs but both were undrafted free agent pickups in 2018 that have been dominant on special teams.
Vallejo was particularly impressive in his short time with the Cardinals, making seven solo tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble in two games that earned him a 92.3 overall grade by Pro Football Focus. Bierria was signed off the Jaguars practice squad late December and has been a special teams player in his three years in the NFL.
The legal tampering period, when teams can speak to free agents and discuss terms of a deal, is still scheduled to begin tomorrow at noon eastern time and the Cardinals could jump on one of the high-priced free agent inside linebackers right away.
Joe Schobert and Cory Littleton will be names swirling around the NFL as they are the top players at the position. Nigel Bradham is another free agent to consider due to his experience playing with Jordan Hicks, which should help with communication. Nick Kwiatkoski and former Cardinal Josh Bynes are worth a look.
If the NFL draft unfolds the way the Cardinals like, Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons could be available at No. 8 but if not, Kenneth Murray is very much in play. They already had visits scheduled with Murray and Cal’s Evan Weaver but not anymore due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Free agency frenzy will begin this week and the Cardinals are expected to be aggressive.