Let’s take a look at the Arizona Cardinals’ roster position by position as we near the NFL free agency period that can lead to signing beginning on Wednesday, March 18, at 1 p.m.
Here’s a look at the Cardinals’ linebacker positions, where wildly productive starters, both inside and out, need sidekicks.
Players under contract: OLB Chandler Jones, ILB Jordan Hicks, OLB Haason Reddick, ILB Tanner Vallejo, ILB Dennis Gardeck, ILB Ezekiel Turner, ILB Keishawn Bierria, OLB Vontarrius Dora
Free agents: OLB Cassius Marsh, OLB Brooks Reed, ILB Joe Walker (exclusive rights restricted)
What we know
When you thought Chandler Jones might creep toward more realistic feats in 2019, the outside linebacker playing in his third defensive system in three years put together his best season yet. He recorded 19 sacks and added 53 total tackles with five passes defensed and eight forced fumbles. He did so with a step-slow Terrell Suggs, late offseason pickup Cassius Marsh and inside linebacker convert Haason Reddick combining for 9.0 sacks from the opposite outside edge rusher spot.
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Linebacker Jordan Hicks can say similar things about trying to carry all the weight possible. He was third in the NFL with 149 tackles during his first year in Arizona.
Perhaps the only criticism either of the two received all year long was directed toward Hicks — and that came from head coach Kliff Kingsbury, who said Hicks over-communicated while taking on too many responsibilities trying to keep a struggling defense afloat.
At inside linebacker, Joe Walker was steady to end the year but ideally would be the No. 3 guy, and fellow ILBs Tanner Vallejo, Dennis Gardeck and Zeke Turner have a lot to prove if they are anything more than depth options.
The bottom line is that Jones and Hicks could use some sidekicks at outside and inside backer.
Big question: Can Reddick salvage his career at OLB?
With free agency funds already running dry after a feverish start to the free agency negotiating period, the Cardinals will have to find value, especially with the hope they can fill in depth once they get the starters locked up.
Reddick, Arizona’s first-round pick in 2017, is the wild card in all this at linebacker.
Last year, he got hurt in training camp and started off the season limited. But from Weeks 3-6, he played 100% of the defensive snaps at inside linebacker alongside Hicks.
The Cardinals struggled covering tight ends more than any other team in 2019. It wasn’t all on Reddick of course, but while his athleticism flashed at ILB, it became clear that he was behind learning the position under defensive coordinator Vance Joseph.
A switch to the outside spot gave him the ability to tap into his natural pass-rushing instincts, but he earned snaps behind Marsh once Suggs was released midseason.
At 235 pounds, will Reddick go into 2020 set on adding bulk to win the other outside linebacker starting job?
Reddick enters the final year of his rookie deal still one of the best athletes on the team but without a set-in-stone NFL position. That could dictate how much the Cardinals improve on defense as much as what Arizona does to shore up tight end pass defense — an available and healthy secondary should help any ILB who starts alongside Hicks.
It’s hard to see at the moment how the Cardinals will shell out for either a premier pass-rusher or modern three-down inside linebacker this summer; both positions garner big money.
At ILB, Cory Littleton, Joe Schobert, Nick Vigil, Tahir Whitehead and Blake Martinez are among the biggest names on the market. Outside, Jadeveon Clowney, Dante Fowler and former Cardinals Markus Golden are among those hitting free agency.
The good news is that there are a lot of talented free agents at edge, especially. Maybe waiting things until the market dries up could help the Cardinals find an acceptable contract with a talented player. But Reddick being a capable starter sure would be a pleasant surprise, both for his career’s trajectory and the Cardinals’ bank account.