DT Frostee Rucker a strong voice inside Arizona Cardinals’ locker room
TEMPE, Ariz. – There may be louder and perhaps more chatty voices in the Arizona Cardinals’ defensive line room, but no voice is respected more than that of Frostee Rucker.
“Frostee was always the leader of that room. Even when Calais (Campbell) was here Frostee was the guy they listened to,” head coach Bruce Arians said.
Perhaps that’s why the Cardinals made it a point to re-sign the 33-year-old veteran.
Rucker wanted to return. He was hopeful for another opportunity, but he admitted on Thursday he wasn’t sure of the Cardinals’ interest.
See, Rucker played much of 2016 at less than 100 percent. He hurt his knee in the opener against New England and missed the next three weeks. The year prior it was an ankle injury, which he played through for much of the season before ultimately undergoing surgery.
In the NFL, teams don’t tend to keep players who get injured.
“What they judge you off is your tape and luckily (the Cardinals) stuck with me and know I have more to offer than what I perceived on tape,” Rucker said. “So I was fortunate that they called and we agreed on some things to be able to come back here and finish this thing the right way.”
Several players have echoed those same sentiments here this offseason.
A 7-8-1 record a year after reaching the NFC Championship Game did not sit well with those in the locker room, or anywhere in the Cardinals training facility.
The belief is that 2016 was an anomaly.
Defensively, Rucker believes they have the talent to make another run, even without the likes of Campbell, Marcus Cooper, Tony Jefferson, Kevin Minter and D.J. Swearinger.
The Cardinals lost five defensive starters to free agency.
“We got great guys that came in our locker room via the draft and also in free agency,” Rucker said. “We got (Antoine) Bethea over there from San Francisco. I’ve been watching his career having played in the same division with him for awhile and back in the deep-end they need a strong leader like that that can play some good ball. We got guys that are stepping up, guys that are itching to get on the field. It’s just going to be a competitive training camp to make this 53-man roster across the board.”
The additions of veteran linebackers Karlos Dansby and Jarvis Jones plus a healthy Tyvon Branch and Tyrann Mathieu should help make up for some of what the Cardinals lost.
Also, as Rucker mentioned, it’s going to take players to step up, perhaps none more so than fellow defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche.
A first-round draft pick in 2016, Nkemdiche played sparingly after suffering an ankle injury before training camp. The injury lingered throughout the season, limiting him to five games and just three tackles.
“Robert has taken huge strides because he’s respecting football, he’s respecting what this is … it’s not college, he’s not on scholarship, it’s a big boy’s league,” Rucker said. “He’s doing a tremendous job of being locked in and focused on what he has to do. Can’t say last year he wasn’t focused but with the injury and then being behind the ball, so to say, going into the season that’s tough on a rookie.
“Robert’s been one of the first guys in the room and learning, pencil out taking notes, meeting with (pass rush specialist) coach Tom Pratt; doing little things because he wants to be great and he wants to help the team win. You can never be down on the guy that doesn’t know but now that he knows, I mean, that’s what we’re judging you on. He’s committed and so I feel like he’s arrived.”
Lofty praise there from an 11-year veteran.
And again, it goes back to why the Cardinals chose to bring Rucker back on a one-year deal. Sure he can contribute on the field — Rucker had 25 tackles and a forced fumble last season — but it’s what he can offer off the field that may be the most important to the team.
“To me, the veterans, that’s their role is to get their room, their complete room ready to play. It’s not a coach’s job. It’s the veterans in the locker room,” Arians said, before pointing to a pair of examples from his days with the Pittsburgh Steelers. “It goes back to Jerome Bettis getting Willie Parker ready to take his job, but he did it and did it gracefully. Hines (Ward) did it with some young guys. That’s the sign of a true pro.
“Frostee does it all the time, Karlos, Antoine — I mean, those guys are coaching the crap out of young guys and eventually they’ll take their job, but right now it’s getting them ready to win.”
On the Cardinals’ defense, Rucker is the second-longest tenured player, right behind Patrick Peterson.
This will be Rucker’s fifth season in Arizona, matching the time he spent in Cincinnati to begin his career. In other words, Rucker, who is now healthy — “I feel great. I’m getting a lot of great work this spring, things I didn’t get last year,” he said — knows the game and better yet, knows how to survive in the game.
“A lot of guys don’t make it past three or four years in this league, and I’m fortunate this is my 12th year,” he said. “I’ve seen the highs and the lows. I’ve been through injuries. I’ve seen it all. So instead of a coach trying to tell these guys that, they have a teammate and a friend that can tell them this stuff and they trust me.”