TEMPE, Ariz. — The pre-draft analysis of Markus Golden last year was rather simple, actually.
He was seen as a hard worker but someone who did not offer much in the way of dynamic pass rush ability.
NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein wrote he was primarily an effort and pursuit player who offered special teams potential, “but doesn’t fill up a stat sheet,” while CBS Sports’ Dane Brugler and Rob Rang noted he did not have the lengthy athletic build scouts prefer and “is not an elite rusher off the edge.”
Twenty-one games into Golden’s professional career, the former second-round pick out of Missouri has amassed 10 sacks, six of which have come in the first five games of the 2016 campaign.
Entering Week 6, Golden was tied for third in the NFL in that category, and has recorded at least one sack in each of the Cardinals’ first five games.
Not that Golden has any time to think of the statistics.
“Not me, man,” he said. “You know, you hear about it from people telling you, but I don’t even look at it like that. I just keep hunting.”
That Golden is experiencing such success early in this season is not all that surprising, given that he came on strong at the end of last season and, according to ProFootballFocus, finished with 28 total pressures on 176 pass rush snaps. The Cardinals credited him for 16 QB pressures and 14 QB hits to go along with his four sacks, and were counting on him to take another step this season.
It looks he’s taken more of a leap.
After last week’s win over the 49ers, a game in which Golden notched two sacks, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said the linebacker is “light-years ahead” of where he was last season, adding Golden has been a force since the time he arrived in the desert.
“It’s just high effort, it’s just a high motor,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “He’ll beat a guy and he’s just relentless, pushing him into the quarterback.”
Golden showed flashes of that kind of ability last season, but needed time in order to put it all together. Arians pointed out how not many rookies come in and pile up great sack numbers, but in year two, players are more relaxed, understand the game better and know what to anticipate.
“And he studies it very hard,” the coach said of Golden.
According to defensive coordinator James Bettcher, Golden’s ability to pick up the defense this quickly is even more impressive because, he said, outside linebacker is the most difficult position to play in Arizona’s defense. In that spot, Golden is asked to help in run defense, blitz, drop down into coverage and even make decisions on whether to drop or rush.
Bettcher added a player’s second and third year is generally when you see the most growth.
“I think he’s ahead of schedule, in regards to that,” he said. “I think when you watch him in practice, he’s aware of things before they happen. That’s a vet-type thing when you’re able to kind of understand some of the things you’re going to get before you get them, whether it’s how the protection slides or whether it’s the route you might get when you’re in coverage, I think he’s becoming more and more aware of those things.”
The more Golden has learned, the better he has played.
“I’m just working, just working; getting out there, working on my moves, using my moves,” the linebacker said. “I know what I’m doing — not too much thinking. Same thing, just playing football.
“Basically, just like you did when you was a kid; when you ain’t out there thinking, you’re able to play like you know you can play.”
Given that he is 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds, many believed Golden would not be able to play like this, though it’s a bit too early to start molding his bust for Canton.
For all the tangible things one can measure — height, weight, arm length, hands, speed, quickness, bench press, etc. — something that cannot be quantified is heart, and that may be the key to Golden’s success.
“Markus Golden has a motor like no other,” linebacker Chandler Jones, himself one of the premier sack artists in the NFL, said. “The way he gets after the play, the way he rushes after the quarterback — he doesn’t give up.
“You’ll see him on the film and he just never stops going, he never stops.”
Unlike Golden, Jones has the look of an elite pass rusher at 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds. He has more of a track record than his teammate, with 40 sacks in 60 games, including a career-best 12.5 last season, but pointed out how it takes more than measurables to be effective.
“You can’t measure the guy’s motor at all, that’s just heart — that’s just having the heart and the will to get after the quarterback, and that’s definitely one thing that Markus Golden does have,” Jones said.
Also, it is not as if Golden is a small child playing a man’s game. While he may not have the look of a prototypical pass rusher, he is no pushover when facing larger linemen.
“Guys are a lot bigger, but I’m a big guy — I’m just not tall,” he said. “I’m pretty strong myself; 255, 260. I’m pretty big myself, I’m just not tall like a lot of guys.
“But that doesn’t matter man, all that. All that overrated stuff — long arms, all of that — that’s overrated, man. It’s football. It ain’t basketball and shooting, know what I’m saying? You need to be tall in basketball, but football, man you’ve just got to be out there, have heart and be a dog out there, you’ve got to make plays.”
Perhaps that’s why the Cardinals have taken to calling Golden “Junkyard Dog,” or “Junk” for short.
Golden likes the nickname, which he said was started by coach Larry Foote and took a little time to get used to.
Another thing that appears to be junk? Those pre-draft evaluations that said he was a reach in the second round and likely to make his greatest impact on special teams. Golden was aware of them, and though he never bought into any of it, he has been happy to prove them wrong.
He has done so by doing the very thing he believes his critics did not.
“Whoever wrote that, they ain’t study my film, that’s all I can say about that,” he said. “That’s how I looked it back then. Whoever wrote that, just was being lazy, that’s what I say. If you can write that about me, you’re being lazy. You ain’t doing all your work.”
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