Gambo’s 6 free agent LBs the Cardinals are expected to target
Haason Reddick is a first-round talent but a work-in-progress as a linebacker.
Deone Bucannon might be on his way out as he enters free agency just a few years removed from being dubbed the first $LB.
The most reliable linebacker from the Arizona Cardinals’ 3-13 season, Josh Bynes, was released this week despite entering 2019 on a reasonable contract while coming off a thumb injury didn’t seem too serious. He certainly didn’t see it coming.
Are the Cardinals that ready to shed any ounce of success from the one-year era of former head coach Steve Wilks? Do they simply want to go in a new direction with Vance Joseph’s 3-4 defense replacing Wilks’ 4-3?
Either way, the Cardinals need more production out of the linebacker position, which was a turnstile last year. Safety Antoine Bethea (120 tackles) led the team in tackles last season, followed by defacto linebacker Budda Baker (102), the undersized defensive back who played near the line.
All of that will be answered in free agency and the draft, where the linebacker depth chart must be reshaped from the top-down.
On Monday, negotiations with free agents can begin. And two days later, on March 13, the new league year begins with free agency starting at 1 p.m. MST.
To prep for the action, here are six linebacker free agency targets who the Cardinals are expected to at least speak to, according to 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s John Gambadoro. Most of them are top names, and it will be curious to see how Arizona spends at a position of need.
Kwon Alexander (6-foot-1, 227 pounds)
Though he’s coming off an ACL tear in Week 7 of last season, Kwon Alexander has been one of the league’s most prolific tacklers over his four-year career.
The 2015 fourth-round pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished his second season with 145 tackles, three sacks, a forced fumble and an interception. His coverage abilities (six interceptions and 22 passes defensed) in 46 games from a middle linebacker spot is impressive.
What’s not is his injury history and a suspension due to performance-enhancing substances that have kept the one-time Pro Bowler sidelined for 18 games during his four-year career..
According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, who joined Tampa radio station 95.3 WDAE on Tuesday, the Buccaneers have discussed re-signing Alexander long-term. Alexander would be a pricy addition and despite the injury will surpass a $10 million-per-year salary.
C.J. Mosley (6-foot-2, 250 pounds)
An even higher-profile linebacker on the market, C.J. Mosley has four Pro Bowl seasons under his belt as one of the Baltimore Ravens’ most important players.
Mosley has twice surpassed the 130-tackle mark in a season.
He’s fought minor criticism of his pass-coverage with success. In 77 career games, he has six forced fumbles and fumble recoveries, 8.5 sacks, nine interceptions and 35 passes defensed.
NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo said the Ravens will make a “strong effort” re-sign Mosley as he was not franchise-tagged at a price of $15.4 million over next season.
Landon Collins (6-foot, 200 pounds)
It raised eyebrows when the New York Giants elected to let Landon Collins hit free agency rather than using their franchise tag on him. He is one of three safeties in a decade to make the Pro Bowl in three of his first four NFL seasons.
Now, you might wonder why he makes this list considering he’s listed as a safety. Well, that’s because his play in 2018 came under former Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher, who deployed Collins in the box or at the line of scrimmage 549 snaps out of 804 total, according to Pro Football Focus. He only lined up deep 109 times.
Collins led the Giants in tackles since he arrived in 2015 as a second-round pick out of Alabama and last year tallied 96 tackles.
Considering Arizona’s front office converted Bucannon from the safety spot he played in college, there’s a good chance the Cardinals see similarities — or at least versatility — if they were to spend on Collins. Price-wise, he could cost a bit.
K.J. Wright (6-foot-4, 246 pounds)
Wright was often mentioned as one of the less-heralded pieces responsible for the Seattle Seahawks’ success dating back to Super Bowl XLVIII.
But at nearly 30 years old and having missed all but five games last year due to a knee injury, one of the team’s better locker room presences is at risk of being spurned.
Wright recorded at least 107 tackles in each of the four seasons before 2018 and would come at a more reasonable price for the Cardinals. Wright is coming off a four-year deal that paid him just south of $7 million annually.
Jordan Hicks (6-foot-1, 236 pounds)
After suffering an Achilles injury in 2017, Philadelphia Eagles middle linebacker Jordan Hicks returned to play 12 games last season, tallying career highs with 91 tackles and three sacks.
While he proved his pass coverage skills well before that — Hicks posted career highs with five picks and 11 passes defense in 2016 — he graded out 10th in the NFL in run-defense during the 2018 season, per Pro Football Focus. PFF ranked Hicks as the top free agent linebacker ahead of Mosley, Wright and Alexander.
Brandon Marshall (6-foot-1, 250 pounds)
Brandon Marshall would have no time fitting in with the Cardinals having played the last two seasons under head coach Vance Joseph, who is now Arizona’s defensive coordinator.
It’s a matter of whether he’s healthy following ankle and knee issues that held him back in recent years. Marshall posted 106 tackles with 3.0 sacks and a forced fumble two seasons ago before recording just 42 tackles in 11 games this past year as a situational linebacker behind rookie Josey Jewell.
Marshall will turn 30 by the first week of the season.
Gambadoro is putting his money on the Cardinals landing someone more of Marshall’s pay-grade that the other, more pricey options.