Then and now: Cardinals ILB Jordan Hicks has some dudes beside him
The Arizona Cardinals believe they’ve plugged holes and built depth. On paper they look improved, though they’ve yet to hit the practice field due to the coronavirus.
They speak about flashes of offensive brilliance last year, the growth of quarterback Kyler Murray and a thinly manned defense’s improvements to end 2019 as reasons to be optimistic about 2020.
But the biggest reason for optimism is the upgraded roster. How different does this 2020 roster really look compared to the one that began the first training camp under head coach Kliff Kingsbury?
By position, here’s a then-and-now comparison of the roster last offseason next to the current 2020 Cardinals team based on our 2019 July preview series leading into 2019 training camp.
2019 projected starters
Jordan Hicks, Haason Reddick
Dennis Gardeck, Joe Walker, Tanner Vallejo, Pete Robertson, Dante Booker
Biggest storyline: Adding Jordan Hicks in free agency
X-factor: Haason Reddick in another new defense
Jordan Hicks, De’Vondre Campbell, Isaiah Simmons
Tanner Vallejo, Evan Weaver, Dennis Gardeck, Zeke Turner
Somewhere quarantined by himself this March, you can imagine Cardinals linebackers coach Billy Davis smiling ear-to-ear. Coming off a season in which defensive play-caller Jordan Hicks recorded one of of the most prolific tackling seasons in the NFL, the Cardinals pulled off a one-year signing of free agent De’Vondre Campbell.
Another quite productive player in his prime, Campbell immediately slotted in as a starter with run-stopping ability. He is also capable of defending tight ends in coverage.
Later this offseason, when the Cardinals saw the multi-skilled talent of Clemson product Isaiah Simmons fall to them at the No. 8 pick in the NFL Draft, you can be sure Davis was not only smiling but thinking: How would he convince defensive coordinator Vance Joseph to keep a trio of very good players on the field?
Simmons could be labeled as a nickel or a safety or an outside linebacker depending on the snap and the coverage, but it’ll be Davis’ job to get him settled at his primary position of inside backer.
Then it’s a matter of how Davis, Joseph and the other defensive assistants use the trio of starting-caliber players, be it stealing snaps from one another or stealing snaps from other position groups.
Since it’s been laid out there that there could be three starting players who are inside linebackers, let’s discuss the other guys on the depth chart. Do any of them have a realistic chance to earn playing time if there are no injuries to Hicks, Campbell or Simmons?
Tanner Vallejo is back after standing out as a backup last season. Behind him, Dennis Gardeck and Zeke Turner were unable to take advantage of Haason Reddick’s position change mid-year. Still, Gardeck and Turner are key locker room personalities and reliable special teams contributors.
The mystery man is Weaver, the sixth-round 2020 draft pick who set Pac-12 records as a senior at Cal. Is he the real deal as a middle linebacker, or are the athleticism question-marks around him warranted? Surely he will translate as a thumping, downhill gap-filler, but Weaver must prove his coverage abilities hold up in a changing NFL.
And again, does he even have a chance to show he can become more than a special teams player?