The Arizona Cardinals failed to address the inside linebacker position prior to the 2018 season and it had disastrous consequences. The defense struggled to stop the run or pass. Arizona’s defensive woes were apparent as the team shuffled through middle linebackers. The Cardinals hope their offseason moves this time around will lead to greener pastures. Today we continue with our look at the Arizona roster, and focus on the inside linebackers.
MIKE (Strong-side) ILB: Jordan Hicks
JACK (Weak-side) ILB: Haason Reddick
The Cardinals have been searching for an inside linebacker duo for the last half decade. Perhaps the best tandem that Arizona have employed was Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby. That ended in May of 2014, with the suspension of Washington, for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Dansby left for Cleveland then returned to Arizona. By that time, Dansby was closer to 40 than 30. Then general manager Steve Keim, brought in a college safety in Deone Bucannon, to play inside. Bucannon produced during his first three seasons, but a switch to a 4-3 scheme, effectively negated any advantage the defense once possessed.
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This left Arizona with another offseason to search for an answer inside. A new defensive coordinator, Vance Joseph, brought a switch back to a 3-4 scheme. However, Arizona chose to let Bucannon leave as a free agent, deciding instead to throw money at the problem in free agency. Arizona surprised many with the signing of former Eagles linebacker, Jordan Hicks. The four-year veteran arrives in Arizona as the chosen quarterback of the defense. Hicks is one of the top two-way linebackers in the league, capable of playing the run and pass.
Playing alongside Hicks, is 2017 first round selection, Haason Reddick. The former Temple Owl, Reddick has changed positions twice in as many seasons. As a rookie, Reddick was primarily used on the outside. However, last season Reddick was tapped to play inside in Steve Wilks’ 4-3 scheme. Wilks’ scheme called for an athletic, yet powerful, middle linebacker. While Reddick is far from diminutive, that type of play has never been his game. The good news for Reddick is he gets to play next to Hicks this season. Hicks takes over the play-calling and assumes the strong-side role, leaving Reddick the chance to use his quickness to make plays.
Leap of Faith
Steve Keim needed an impact linebacker after the debacle of 2018. The linebacker position was the primary reason for a significant regression by the Arizona defense. Hicks was a consolation for Keim. The general manager had his eyes on C.J. Mosley. Unfortunately, most NFL teams had an eye on Mosley. After the top defensive free agent signed with the Jets, Keim quickly worked on getting Hicks into the facility. While the signing was a shrewd move, it could be overshadowed by the lack of action at the position, post the Hicks signing.
Arizona’s defense wasn’t just a Jordan Hicks caliber linebacker away from a playoff spot. Specifically, the Cardinals needed Hicks as well as an overhaul of the inside linebacker position. The depth behind Hicks and Reddick consists of six players with a combined 12 years of NFL experience. However, the production is a far better indication of what backs up Hicks and Reddick, as the group of six have combined for just 67 total tackles. Barring any moves before the season begins, the Cardinals are placing all their eggs in one basket, that Jordan Hicks can play in every game for just the second time in five seasons. Quite the risk to take for Arizona.
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What makes the decision all the more dangerous, is the injury history of Hicks. During his 2015 rookie season, a pectoral injury limited Hicks to just eight games. In 2017 he played in seven games, battling injuries to his ankle and calf. An Achilles injury ended his season. Hicks played in 12 games last season while combating a calf issue for most of the second half of the season. 2016 was the only time Hicks has played a full season. Hicks has played in just 67 percent of his team’s regular season contests.
Heading into training camp, Hicks and Reddick are the starters. Turner and Gardeck were solid contributors on special teams last season. That makes four spots all but taken on the roster. Realistically, there is a strong possibility that only one additional spot is open at inside linebacker. One spot, four contenders, with one possibly available to be placed on the practice squad (Booker). It likely comes down to who can prove to be the most versatile.
Heading into 2018, the Cardinals defense had questions to answer at middle linebacker. A disastrous season led to changes in coaching and schemes. The offseason has seen a group of quality additions at the positions. However, the Cardinals head into 2019 with new questions at the position. Will the answers be good enough?