GLENDALE, Ariz. — “With the 27th pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, the Arizona Cardinals select Deone Bucannon, safety, Washington State University.”
Those words, or some similar to them, were uttered by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a little more than one year ago when the Cardinals chose to make Deone Bucannon their first-round pick.
A first-team All-American as a senior, Bucannon went on to post a very solid first year with the Cardinals. A nine-game starter, he finished with 75 total tackles, two sacks, two passes defensed, one fumble recovery and one forced fumble.
His numbers were good — especially for a for a rookie — but what really stood out about his rookie season was just how little safety Bucannon actually played.
Be it due to depth in the secondary, a need in the box or some combination of the two, the former Cougar often times found himself playing linebacker.
Based on how training camp has gone, it appears Bucannon is likely to reprise that role. When Cardinals coach Bruce Arians was asked a couple weeks ago if the team has a healthy three-down inside linebacker on the roster, his answer was “yes” — they had Bucannon.
Though safety is technically his position, the second-year pro said he has no issue with adding another spot to his résumé.
“I love being on the field, quite frankly. It doesn’t really matter where I’m at,” Bucannon said. “I’m thankful to God that I’m out there, I’m thankful to God that the team has faith in me to put me, honestly, wherever they want to.
“I’m going to get out there and I’m going to give it my all, every play.”
It’s the right mindset for a lot of reasons, chief among them being that the Cardinals have no intention of limiting him to just one role. In fact, Arians said the only way he sees things change for Bucannon this season is that he’ll get more playing time.
According to ProFootballFocus, Bucannon was on the field for 705 snaps last season, a total that was fifth among the team’s defensive backs.
That number can rise in large part because of the player’s versatility. Listed at 6-foot-1 and 211 pounds, Bucannon has enough size to go along with his speed to do many different things on the field.
“He’s big, strong, fast and he can cover backs, he can cover tight ends, he’s got good length and he’s a tremendous hitter,” Arians said. “So he’s got linebacker skills, he’s got safety skills. It’s good for us to get him in there the most we can get him in there.”
Arians said Bucannon’s ability to excel at linebacker was not a total surprise to them, though he added it’s a credit to the player that he’s able to get the job done.
“He moves like a safety and in tight quarters, in tight spaces, and hits like a linebacker,” Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer said, before citing a play in practice where Bucannon “brought it” to a 310-pound guard.
“He’s built like a bigger safety, he hits like a linebacker, but he can still cover guys,” Palmer added. “He’ll be great for us against the teams that check the ball down to running backs a lot, because I’m sure he’ll be matched up with running backs and tight ends in the box.”
It’s not at all unusual to see a team rely on a first-round pick as much as the Cardinals did. What is a little strange is a team relying on said player at a position that isn’t theirs.
In a way, this makes sense.
On the big side for a safety, Bucannon is then a bit on the svelte side for a linebacker. However, his combination of strength and effort allow him to become a mismatch for Arizona’s defense, as lineman have a tough time getting in front of him. And, as Palmer said, when a play calls for Bucannon to drop back into coverage, he can do that too.
Arians said Bucannon is likely fine with playing in the box because he likes to hit people. That penchant has gotten him in trouble at times, like in last Saturday’s preseason loss to the San Diego Chargers.
In the first quarter, Bucannon, trying to get a shot on running back Danny Woodhead, instead lit up teammate Calais Campbell. Campbell, who had to leave the game for a bit, had this exchange with his teammate.
“I’m curious, after you hit me and knocked me out of the game for a play, did you feel bad at all?,” he asked.
“You put me on the spot. I definitely did,” Bucannon responded. “If you see, after the play, I had my hands on my head, like, ‘this is our top guy, this our top guy.’ It was like last year all over again, because I had hit Patrick Peterson last year, and I was like, ‘oh my gosh, here we go again.’ I was really just hoping and praying that you weren’t hurt.”
Responded Campbell: “I’m pretty tough, but that was the hardest I’ve been hit, just so you know. You’re a hard hitter.”
No one will argue with that. The only debate, really, is about what position Bucannon is dishing out his hard hits from.
Bucannon doesn’t really care what his position is called as long as his number is.
“I just see myself as an athlete — you can put me wherever you want. I played a little bit of safety, I played linebacker,” he said. “I came off the edge last year a lot, too, so honestly it’s wherever the coaches want me to be.
“I take pride in that, and I’m happy that they see me as a player that can do that because I don’t feel like a lot of people can do that, and I think they have a lot of faith in me that I can.”