Then and now: Cardinals can hope OLB is more than the Chandler Jones show
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
Chandler Jones, Terrell Suggs
Brooks Reed, Cameron Malveaux, Vontarrius Dora, Pita Taumoepenu
Biggest storyline: Jones and Suggs can pin their ears back in Vance Joseph’s 3-4
X-factor: Terrell Suggs’ impact in his 17th season
Chandler Jones, Devon Kennard
Isaiah Simmons (?), Haason Reddick, Kylie Fitts, Vontarrius Dora
Patrick Peterson always gets the asterisk about his low interception numbers. It’s hard for P2 to find picks when nobody throws it his way. He’s still hoping a healthy Robert Alford can give Arizona a solid No. 2 corner and lead to quarterbacks challenging him with a competent coverage man on the other side of the field.
Perhaps not enough attention, then, goes to pass-rusher Chandler Jones, who over the last few years hasn’t had an effective edge rusher garnering attention on the other side of the line. Since Markus Golden’s 12.5-sack season opposite Jones in 2016, Jones has been supplemented by pass-rushers including Kareem Martin, Benson Mayowa, Golden coming off an ACL injury, an aging Suggs and a production-lacking Cassius Marsh.
No disrespect to them, but on paper, offseason signee Devon Kennard looks like Jones’ best edge teammate in the past few years.
Kennard, 29, is coming off his second consecutive 7.0-sack campaign and expects to have more opportunities playing in Joseph’s system.
“Playing in Detroit was the first time I got to rush more often and even with that said, I think I was top two or three — I dropped more than any outside linebacker in the league,” Kennard said on March 23. “I still dropped a lot more than most guys at my position.”
If Kennard can produce even what he did as a Lion the past two years in Arizona’s more aggressive defense, it should translate to better success across the front seven.
Put it like this: Suggs, Marsh, Haason Reddick and Brooks Reed combined for 10.0 sacks last season.
If Kennard by himself can sniff that total, it’ll be a win for the Cardinals even if Jones can’t get close to topping the 19.0 quarterback takedowns from a year ago.
How much will rookie inside linebacker Isaiah Simmons impact the pass-rushing game? That’s the big question regardless of what position you want to peg him as.
No, don’t expect the first-round pick to sit back in coverage too often as a cornerback or safety. Expect that he’ll play mostly as an inside linebacker.
On the other side of his spectrum of versatility, how often could he be used as an outside linebacker? Whether that’s as a disguised blitzer who will drop back into coverage or as a true pass-rusher, Simmons could command snaps away from the outside linebackers or interior defensive linemen.
With fellow inside linebackers De’Vondre Campbell and Jordan Hicks in the fold, Simmons could join them on the field using his 6-foot-4, 238-pound frame and 4.38-second 40-yard dash speed to rush. He tallied 8.0 sacks in his final season at Clemson.
“I’ve seen him pass-rush and, obviously, when you’re a blitzer, you have to have some kind of pass-rushing technique,” Joseph said this offseason. “If they have a blocker for you — which in this league they probably will most of the time — you have to have some technique to make moves and flip (the opponent’s) hips to be a pass-rusher. I’ve seen him do that. I’ve also seen him rush when he’s clean.
“I’ve seen him also beat backs and tight ends one-to-one as a pass-rusher, so he’s both. I mean, when you’re that tall and long with that kind of burst, being a blitzer or pass-rusher, it’s kind of one and the same.”