The 5: Skill set and background of new Cardinals LB Devon Kennard

Mar 19, 2020, 8:31 AM
Devon Kennard #42 of the Detroit Lions runs past Saquon Barkley #26 of the New York Giants for a fi...
Devon Kennard #42 of the Detroit Lions runs past Saquon Barkley #26 of the New York Giants for a first half touchdown after picking up a fumble at Ford Field on October 27, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The Arizona Cardinals on Wednesday agreed to terms with linebacker Devon Kennard, per Arizona Sports’ John Gambadoro. Kennard is a former Arizona high school football star who played college at USC before making it to the NFL.

With the move, Arizona hopes to have shored up its outside linebacker position and added another player who can get to the quarterback across from star linebacker Chandler Jones.

Kennard was drafted by the New York Giants, played two years for the Detroit Lions and was released Tuesday.

He quickly inked a deal to return home to Phoenix, where he starred in high school for Desert Vista.

So how can Kennard help the Cardinals? Here are some stats and background on the player Arizona fans can expect.

Stats: Kennard vs. 2019 Arizona LBs

Over Kennard’s two seasons with the Detroit Lions, he started 30 of 31 games he appeared in. During that time, he totaled 102 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, 14 sacks and 29 quarterback hits.

He had a forced fumble in 2019 and three total fumble recoveries over those two years, one of which was returned for a touchdown.

Kennard is going from a team with a blitz rate among the lowest in the NFL to one that was among in the highest.

The Lions blitzed on just 18% of dropbacks last year, the third-least in the league, according to Pro Football Reference.

The Cardinals blitzed 39.7% of the time, the third-most.

Kennard is expected to take the linebacker position manned by Terrell Suggs for 13 games and then Cassius Marsh and Haason Reddick for the final three after Suggs was cut.

He should beef up the production of that spot.

Over Suggs’ 13 games, he had 37 tackles, eight tackles for loss, seven quarterback hits, a fumble recovery and 5.5 sacks.

In the three games after Suggs was released, Marsh and Reddick combined for 18 tackles, three tackles for loss, three quarterback hits and 2.5 sacks.

Strengths and weaknesses

To learn about Kennard, 98.7 FM Arizona Sports’ Burns & Gambo spoke to ESPN Lions reporter Michael Rothstein on Wednesday.

“He’s a pretty good tackler. And once he gets going he can be really good in the pass rush. Those really to me are his two strengths,” Rothstein said. “The Lions really only used him as a jack on that edge to kind of rush the passer and then obviously set the edge against the run.”

However, Rothstein said, Kennard didn’t show much positional flexibility.

The Cardinals plan to play Kennard in the SAM outside linebacker spot, Gambadoro said. This is a similar role Kennard played in Detroit.

He typically came off the edge to attack the passer and did not cover players running routes.

Overall, the Lions’ scheme and lack of blitzing leaves some question marks in just how good Kennard is and can be in a different system.

“I could see Devon Kennard in a defense where there is a lot of blitzing being very, very effective. But the Lions didn’t blitz a lot. They would sometimes rush three, often they’d rush four, and that’s tough for really for any edge rusher unless you’re the elite of the elite,” Rothstein said.

“(Head coach) Matt Patricia’s defense specifically, they really want to get pressure up the middle, force out, and then guys like Kennard can clean up. And Kennard’s very good at a clean-up situation, but they weren’t getting that either.

“It’s really tough to say because the Lions’ defense was just really problematic all season long.”

All in all, the Cardinals aren’t adding a second Jones by any means, but they are getting a player whose strengths seem stronger and weaknesses more veiled than those of Suggs, Marsh or Reddick last year.

“Essentially, he’s a good player,” Rothstein said. “He’s an above-average player, but he’s really primarily a pass rusher who is OK setting the edge against the run. He’s not going to really cover anybody.”

How did Kennard become a free agent?

So if Kennard is a solid player, and the Lions had a bad defense, how did he become available?

Rothstein said Detroit has a lot of linebacker depth, and Kennard’s contract made him the most expendable out of the group.

Detroit agreed Tuesday to sign former New England Patriot Jamie Collins to a three-year, $30 million deal and released Kennard, which saved the team $5.675 million. The Lions took on $1.75 million of dead money, according to ESPN.

Rothstein said the release of Kennard was simultaneously surprising yet unsurprising.

“As far as Kennard on field, he played OK last year. He tied for the team lead in sacks, and while that may be impressive, understand that’s still only seven sacks,” Rothstein said.

“He’s very much a volume pass-rusher off of the edge. He’s a good player, I would say he’s an above-average NFL player, but that maybe just wasn’t enough considering the Lions just invested money in Jamie Collins.”

Arizona links

Kennard attended Desert Vista High School in Phoenix, where he was viewed as one of the best players in the nation.

The 247Sports Composite Rankings had him as the No. 12 player overall and top weak-side defender in the class of 2009. CBS College Sports Television analyst Tom Lemming ranked him as the top defensive player in the country, according to MaxPreps.

After Kennard played on varsity as a sophomore, head coach Dan Hinds named him a captain as a junior.

“He was the first kid that I ever made a captain as a junior,” Hinds told Burns & Gambo on Wednesday. “He was leading as a sophomore.”

As a junior, Kennard had 111 tackles, 33 tackles for loss, 24.5 sacks, seven passes defended and forced three fumbles. He also had some snaps at running back in which he had 63 carries for 445 yards and five touchdowns.

Kennard led the team to a championship appearance that year, a game Desert Vista lost. Hinds recalls Kennard kneeling on the grass at the Cardinals’ home stadium with tears in his eyes, where he vowed to return the following year.

That was never to be, as Kennard suffered a knee injury three games into his senior season and missed the remainder of the year, according to MaxPreps.

His brother, Derek Kennard Jr., is an assistant coach at Desert Vista and his dad, Derek Kennard, played for the Cardinals.

The elder Kennard was drafted by St. Louis in 1986 and then moved with the team to Phoenix two years later, where he remained until he was traded in August 1991.

Now, Devon will don a Cardinals jersey like his dad all those years ago and step onto State Farm Stadium grass like he did in high school.

“We’ve always joked around about it: ‘Hey, when are you going to get back home? When are you going to come play for the Cardinals?’” Hinds said. “The NFL is a cutthroat business and so I guess it’s just a deal where it worked out.”

As a leader and in the community

Both Rothstein and Hinds raved about Kennard’s leadership and the difference he made in the community

“Off the field … I don’t know if you can get a better representative of your organization,” Rothstein said.

Kennard, who was the Lions’ captain the last two years, was active in the community and named Detroit’s nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.

In terms of being a team leader, Rothstein said, “you can’t get much better.”

“He is somebody who is going to be relentlessly positive. He’s going to take losses really hard. I remember talking to him multiple times throughout the last two months of last season when the Lions didn’t win a game. They didn’t win a game in November or December, and you could tell it was really, really affecting him but he was just always still positive that they were going to win the next game, at least publicly. And they needed that.” 

Rothstein added that Kennard doesn’t publicly complain about what goes on in the locker room or coaching decisions.

Hinds’ decision to make Kennard a captain as a junior speaks for itself, but the longtime head coach praised him further.

“The best (leader), I’d say,” Hinds said. “We’ve had a lot of great players come through DV, and a lot of great leaders, but Devon is by far the best.” 

With some young core pieces on the team and a few years of losing in the rearview mirror, Arizona can always use another leader.

“I would imagine he’s pretty excited right now to come home and play, but I’m sure there’s part of him too that’s really happy that he can maybe do more in his community now,” Rothstein said. “He’s just that type of person.”

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The 5: Skill set and background of new Cardinals LB Devon Kennard