Cardinals pre-camp preview: Jordan Hicks quarterbacking from ILB
The Arizona Cardinals report to duty on July 24 and open 2019 training camp with their first practice the following day. To preview the storylines heading into head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s first year on the job, let’s take a look at the roster by position groups.
The inside linebackers include one player who represents one of the team’s biggest offseason priorities and another still hoping to reach his potential as a first-round draft pick.
Jordan Hicks, Haason Reddick
Dennis Gardeck, Joe Walker, Tanner Vallejo, Pete Robertson, Dante Booker
The Cardinals’ missteps regarding their offensive line, quarterback and offensive coordinator personnel got the most attention in 2018.
All along though, it was the linebacker rotation that should have raised red-flags from the start of the Steve Wilks era.
Former rising star Deone Bucannon was hardly used early last season coming off a training camp injury, and fellow first-round pick Haason Reddick was out of the rotation without the excuse of injury. Veteran Josh Bynes was the most competent at the position, and late free agent addition Gerald Hodges got his chance to shine in front of the younger players.
General manager Steve Keim wiped the slate clean in 2018, keeping only the hard-working Reddick. In terms of money spent in free agency, Keim showed exactly how he felt about the LB room last year by adding former Eagle Jordan Hicks, an underrated and versatile middle linebacker, on a four-year, $36 million deal.
“There were a few teams involved,” Hicks told reporters when he was introduced in March. “But definitely not a surprise (that I signed here). My relationships with (linebackers coach Bill Davis) and just the fact that this team is exciting right now. A young coach, new staff, young team, great defense. For me, it was really enticing to come here.”
With Arizona going back to a 3-4 defense under defensive coordinator Vance Joseph and using a tandem of Chandler Jones and Terrell Suggs as outside backers, it’s on Hicks and Reddick to produce this year in a changing NFL that puts a premium on multi-dimensional linebackers.
Covering is Hicks’ specialty, as according to Pro Football Focus, he is second to Carolina’s Luke Kuechly in coverage grades among 100 linebackers who’ve taken 1,000 or more snaps since 2015.
He was also top-10 in rush defense among linebackers. Last season, Hicks recorded a career-best 91 tackles to go with three sacks and five passes defensed.
The question for him is durability: He’s missed eight or more games twice in his four NFL seasons and last year played in 12 games.
Reddick says he’s finally comfortable. Joseph and head coach Kliff Kingsbury have complimented him. Hicks didn’t take long to become impressed.
“I’ve played with a lot of linebackers and Haason [Reddick] is up there, as athletically gifted out of any of them,” Hicks told 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s Doug & Wolf in June. “Haason works hard. Haason understands the defense.”
Two years ago, Reddick was jerked between a hand-down pass-rusher and linebacker. The learning curve hasn’t deterred him, and after playing as an off-ball linebacker for Wilks’ 4-3 defense in his second year, the role doesn’t change much this year.
“I really like inside linebacker for the fact that I’m back and I can see more,” he said. “I like the fact that I see certain things, I can be like, ‘OK, I know what’s about to happen … Or why is he standing like that?’ ‘Cause it’s like a game now, like you’re playing chess, and I like that a lot.”
Reddick got valuable reps and improved as last season aged, finishing with 80 tackles and 4.0 sacks.
Can he take the step toward playing up to expectations of being a first-round pick in 2019?
Under the radar
— Depth isn’t a strong-suit at inside linebacker. The remaining players listed at ILB on the Cardinals roster have combined for 59 career tackles.
— On the Cardinals’ Coaches Chronicles Podcast this offseason, Joseph named second-year pro Dennis Gardeck as a player to watch. Gardeck and converted safety Zeke Turner, who impressed last preseason, might be the high-upside players that the Cardinals could rely on beyond Hicks and Reddick.
He said it
“We’ve put a bunch of defense in, on purpose,” Joseph told Bickley & Marotta this summer on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station. “We’ve had very, very few mistakes because guys study. Jordan Hicks is a quarterback on defense, man, he can unwind it. So he was a great get for us. Haason Reddick has had a great offseason.
“We’re asking players to do different things. For instance … we’re facing a bunch of four-wides (in practices). Haason Reddick’s our dime backer, so he’s been covering receivers for the last three weeks. I won’t give him a receiver during the fall, but it’s helping him in his coverage game.”