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Spare Jordan

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at New York Giants Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a rough and difficult year for Cardinals’ MIKE LB Jordan Hicks.

In 2019, at the behest of ILB coach Billy Davis who coached Jordan Hicks in Philly when Hicks was a rookie, the Cardinals signed the former Eagle to (per a 4 year, $34,000,000 contract with the Arizona Cardinals, including a $12,000,000 signing bonus, $20,000,000 guaranteed, and an average annual salary of $8,500,000.

When healthy, Jordan Hicks played consistently well with the Eagles:

  • 2015 PHI 446 snaps PFF grade: 80.9
  • 2016 PHI 971 snaps PFF grade: 88.4
  • 2017 PHI 268 snaps PFF grade: 64.3
  • 2018 PHI 705 snaps PFF grade: 75.1

The Cardinals gambled on Jordan Hicks being able to stay healthy and highly effective in stopping the run and defending the pass. The staying healthy part of the gamble has paid off, as Hicks has started all 32 games during his two year tenure. However, the playing highly effective playing part of the gamble has not come to the kind of fruition that Hicks, Billy Davis and the Arizona Cardinals had hoped.

  • 2019 ARZ 1,133 snaps PFF grade: 61.0
  • 2020 ARZ 1,024 snaps PFF grade: 50.4

One can argue that Hicks has put up good tackling numbers:

  • 2019: 150 tackles (PFF run defense grade: 69.1)
  • 2020: 118 tackles (PFF run defense grade: 40.4)

Jordan Hicks’ 2020 run defense grade in NFC West games (Cardinals 2-4):

  • @ SF: 48.5 W
  • H-SEA: 46.5 W
  • @ SEA: 29.5 L
  • H-LA: 56.5 L
  • H-SF: 39.8 L
  • @ LA: 35.7 L

The problem with Jordan Hicks wasn’t with the volume of tackles he made, it was where he was making the vast majority of them, 7-8 yards from the line of scrimmage. So often it appeared that RBs were coming toward him instead of him coming toward them. There seemed to be a noticeable difference in instincts and aggressiveness when Tanner Vallejo filled in at MIKE, as Vallejo ran downhill quickly to the ball and made good, tidily wrapped, fundamental tackles.

Vallejo (2020 PFF grade: 67.0), who doubles as a special teams ace, was re-signed by the Cardinals on March 22 to a 2 year, $3.3M contract, with $1.1M guaranteed. He was told by Cardinals’ DC that he could have a more defined and consistent role in the defense this season.

On March 31, Jordan Hicks accepted a $3M pay cut, which reduced his 2021 base salary to $2M (non-guaranteed). The Cardinals are still paying Hicks $3M this year and in 2022 on his original $12M guaranteed signing bonus.

On April 29, to the surprise of some pundits and fans, the Cardinals elected All-American MIKE LB Zaven Collins of Tulsa, the 2020 Bronko Nagurski Award (top LB in USA) winner, with the #16 pick of the 1st round.

The Cardinals had previously used 1st round picks on Deone Bucannon (2014), Haason Reddick (2017) and Isaiah Simmons (2020), with the hope that they could be highly productive WILL ILBs, the likes of which the team hasn’t seen since the days of 2010 2nd round pick, Daryl Washington of TCU.

However, in drafting Zaven Collins to play MIKE, this was the first time the Cardinals have used a 1st round pick at that pivotal position in their 34 defense. The highest pick Steve Keim has made previously in addressing the MIKE position was his 2nd round pick of Kevin Minter in 2013. Minter, the highly rated prospect from LSU, was another high pick who did not work out as planned.

Perhaps in light of the confusion last year as to where the Cardinals would play #8 pick Isaiah Simmons and the coaches’ reluctance (despite the team’s struggles at ILB) to play Simmons a significant number of snaps until late in the season, Steve Keim and Kliff Kingsbury made it crystal clear that not only was Zaven Collins drafted to play the MIKE, it is their intention to plug and play Collins from the get-go.

The decision to draft Zaven Collins with the intention of plugging him into the lineup, basically has rendered Jordan Hicks as a lame duck.

Because of how emphatic Keim and Kingsbury are in their intentions, and because they have already re-signed backup ILB Tanner Vallejo to a two year deal, the Cardinals should, in my opinion, spare Jordan Hicks the humiliation of being a lame duck.

Jordan Hicks is 29, he’s healthy and he is undoubtedly a better player than what he showed the Cardinals in 2020. Perhaps it was his familiarity with his position coach Billy Davis, or the lackluster effort some other veteran defensive players were putting forth (a dysfunctional aspect of the team’s culture that Keim and Kingsbury have been focused on rectifying this off-season), or, after being named a team captain in 2020, perhaps it was his over-confidence that the coaches would never take him off the field —- Jordan Hicks was not the $8M a year player the Cardinals were counting on.

By agreeing back in March to a $3M pay cut, Hicks’ $2M non-guaranteed base salary makes it easier for him and the Cardinals to try to trade him. Perhaps there are a few teams who need a veteran addition at ILB that would be willing to trade a Day 3 draft pick for him —- or swap a player for a player.

The Cardinals could and should give Jordan Hicks and his agent permission to seek a trade.

But, even if a trade is unsuccessful, the Cardinals should allow Jordan Hicks to compete for a starting job with another team.

There is a tangible, oppressive awkwardness that comes with asking a prideful veteran player like Jordan Hicks, who has already agreed to a pay cut, to now mentor and sit behind a rookie. This is not only awkward for Hicks, but it is terribly awkward for Billy Davis and Vance Joseph, who tend to favor the veterans. Furthermore, it is particularly awkward for Zaven Collins, as a rookie to come in and feel like he’s stealing a veteran’s job, especially in the case of a veteran who is well liked by his teammates.

By sparing Hicks, the Cardinals would also be sparing Billy Davis, Vance Joseph, Kliff Kingsbury, Zaven Collins and the vets on the team who feel bad for Jordan Hicks of having to cope on a daily basis with the awkwardness that this situation has created.

In trading or realizing Jordan Hicks, the Cardinals can add $2M of 2021 cap space and would be taking $3M hits in dead money on the 2021 and 2022 caps ($6M total).

One could argue for the Cardinals to keep Jordan Hicks, who knows all the defensive calls, as a veteran backup MIKE. But, after what you saw from Hicks and Tanner Vallejo last season, if Zaven Collins were to come out for a series, who would you rather see come in for him, Hicks or Vallejo?

Seeing as the Cardinals have put their faith in Zaven Collins and Tanner Vallejo this off-season, while asking Jordan Hicks to take a pay cut, the writing is plainly on the wall.

Plus, the cupboard isn’t bare behind Tanner Vallejo because the Cardinals have the FBS leading tackler in 2019, Evan Weaver of Cal, who was their 2020 6th round pick. Weaver may not be a 3 down ILB, but he certainly could fill a role as an effective run stuffing MIKE on running downs.

At WILL the Cardinals have depth behind Isaiah Simmons in Zeke Turner who has played well when he’s been given a brief chance. Tanner Vallejo can also play the WILL and, in a pinch, so could Dennis Gardeck.

What Vallejo, Turner, Weaver and Gardeck all bring to the table is special teams talent. At this point in Jordan Hicks’ career, as a backup, he is not going to be a factor on special teams.

If Cardinals spare Jordan Hicks, they could give him the opportunity to have a fresh start with a new team, which could allow him to turn his career path back in a positive direction.

The Dolphins released team captain S Bobby McCain (62.1 2020 PFF) today. Why? Because they drafted Jevon Holland of Oregon in the 2nd round and they are in the process of making a team friendly deal with Malik Hooker.

This is what good teams do, when they identify a desire to upgrade a position.