Seeing Stars: Grading the Arizona Cardinals’ LB situation
The Arizona Cardinals won 11 games in 2014, and if not for an incredible amount of injuries very well could have had an even more successful season.
Look around, though, and you’ll see varied opinions on how they will fare in 2015. Some view them as a contender, a team that will compete for a Super Bowl if it can have a little luck in the health department. Others believe last year was a bit of a fluke, that they are destined to take a step back.
As training camp nears, we thought it would be a good idea to take a look at the team on a position-by-position basis, grading each group on a five-star scale.
So, how does the team look?
LB: Kevin Minter, Lorenzo Alexander, Sean Weatherspoon, Alex Okafor, Kareem Martin, Markus Golden, Shaq Riddick, LaMarr Woodley, Darryl Sharpton, Glenn Carson, Kenny Demens, Andrae Kirk, Alani Fua, Edwin Jackson, Gabe Martin
Grade: 3.5 stars
You want talent? It’s here. You want intrigue? You’ve found the right place. You want question marks? Winner, winner, chicken dinner.
When it comes to Arizona’s linebackers, there really is not much in the way of guaranteed production. What there is, however, is options. Lots of options.
Let’s start with Kevin Minter, a third-year pro who is in need of a big year to solidify his role on the team. Counted on to break out last season — especially with Karlos Dansby in Cleveland and Daryl Washington suspended — the former second-round suffered a pectoral injury in the preseason, one that he says left him playing at 60 to 70 percent of his ability. He finished with just 49 total tackles as well as his first career sack, but was in no way the kind of player the Cards wanted him to be. Now healthy, the only thing that may hold Minter back is the idea that he is more of a two-down linebacker than a three-down one, which could limit how often he is on the field. The key for him, really, is to be the elite run defender the team thought it was drafting while perhaps showing a bit more ability in the passing game.
One of the players set to lineup along with Minter, if all goes according to plan, will be Sean Weatherspoon. Signed to a one-year “prove it” kind of deal in the offseason, the former Atlanta Falcon has never lacked talent. What he has been missing is good fortune in the health department, having missed a significant amount of time over the last two seasons with various injuries, including a ruptured Achilles tendon last season. In 2012, when he appeared in 13 games, Weatherspoon was rated by ProFootballFocus.com as the 23rd-best outside linebacker, with positive grades as a pass rusher as well as in coverage. That season he tallied 70 total tackles, three sacks and one fumble recovery. A leader, a healthy campaign would go a long way toward not only rebuilding his value, but keep Arizona’s status as one of the best defenses in the NFL.
Another player who could help there is Alex Okafor. The third-year pro out of Texas broke out in a way last season, leading the Cardinals with eight sacks in 13 games. It was an impressive performance from the defensive end-turned-outside linebacker, who showed enough to make you think he could be a productive pass rusher for the team. Okafor understands part of his success last season stemmed from teams not focusing much on stopping him, which is likely to change this season. An offseason arrest in Texas wasn’t helpful to his growth, though nothing seems to have come of it and he is excited to be coming off a healthy offseason, one that allowed him to improve.
Also added in hopes of improving the pass rush was a couple of rookies in Markus Golden and Shaq Riddick. Golden, a second-round pick from Missouri, flew under the radar in college but still managed to rack up 15 sacks over the last two seasons. Riddick, a fifth-round pick, tallied seven sacks for West Virginia last season after posting 8.5 the year before with Gardner-Webb. Like Okafor before them, both are making the transition from defensive end to linebacker. How long that takes will likely determine how much we see either player this season.
The same still holds true for Kareem Martin, a third-round pick in 2014 out of North Carolina who registered one sack and eight tackles in 11 games last season. He was inactive the final four games of the regular season as well as the playoff loss to Carolina, and was not really talked about much during offseason work. This is shaping up to be a big camp for the second-year pro, who will need to show enough to make the team believe he has a future as a pass rusher.
Unlike Martin, who must prove he has a future, LaMarr Woodley needs to show he still has something left in the tank. The 30-year-old signed a one-year contract with the Cardinals after an injury-plagued 2014 that saw him appear in six games while recording zero sacks for the Oakland Raiders. Once one of the most dominant pass rushers in the game – he tallied 44 sacks from 2008 to 2011 — the veteran is confident a return to health will see him return to being the player he once was.
There is no such issue or expectation for Lorenzo Alexander, who has been nothing but solid for the Cardinals since signing before the 2013 season. A special teams captain both seasons he’s been in Arizona, Alexander has been unable to carve out a consistent role on the defense. In a way, he’s Arizona’s “in case of emergency, break glass” linebacker, someone who understands the game and can take the field when needed but is also not an ideal every-down backer or someone who is an elite pass rusher.
From there, the Cardinals have some reasonably young and talented depth. Kenny Demens appeared in 14 games last season, with most of his action coming on special teams, where he finished second on the team with nine tackles. Carson impressed during the preseason but appeared in just six games (including playoffs). He saw his most significant action of the season Week 17 against San Francisco, tallying nine total tackles in the loss. Unlike Demens and Carson, Sharpton has a bit of experience on his side. A veteran of five NFL seasons – most recently playing for the Chicago Bears – the former fourth-round pick has 176 total tackles and one sack to his name. His best season came in 2013 for the Houston Texans, as he appeared in 15 games and racked up 87 total tackles along with one forced fumble. Kirk, Fua, Jackson and Martin will all likely need to impress on special teams to have a shot at the roster, though some could find their way onto the practice squad.
Oh, and there’s also the Daryl Washington question. As of now he has not been reinstated by the NFL, meaning he is not a part of the team. If and when he is reinstated, the former Pro Bowler is probably going to be facing another suspension on top of the one he would have just finished serving. In other words, don’t count on having D-Wash anytime soon.