TEMPE, Ariz. – It would be hard to tab one area of the Cardinals roster as the biggest recipient of the Steve Keim/Bruce Arians makeover. With two new quarterbacks, three new running backs, two new offensive line starters and a remade secondary, almost half the faces are new.
“That’s just the trend in the NFL,” Arians said.
But one position that should have fans particularly excited is the linebacker position. Even though Pro Bowler Daryl Washington will miss some time due to a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse program, and even though there are still questions about how much Karlos Dasby has left in the tank and whether Lorenzo Alexander can make the transition from special teams and bit player to starter, the team brought in a number of new faces with the shared ability to make plays.
Starters (for now): SLB Sam Acho, ILBs Jasper Brinkley and Karlos Dansby, WLB Lorenzo Alexander
Reserves: Matt Shaughnessy, John Abraham, Kevin Minter, Alex Okafor
Suspended for first four games: Daryl Washingon
Who’s new? Brinkley (free agency), Dansby (free agency), Alexander (free agency), Shaughnessy (free agency), Abraham (free agency), Kevin Minter (second round, 45th overall), Okafor (fourth round, 103rd overall)
How will the team absorb Washington’s absence? He led the team in sacks last year (nine) from the inside position, and you can make the argument that he is the best player on the defense, although end Calais Campbell and cornerback Patrick Peterson would put up an argument. But when former Cardinal Karlos Dansby was brought back into the fold on a one-year deal, it eased the concern while ramping up anticipation of what life might look like with both players in the lineup. But the Cards didn’t stop there. They added pass-rushing specialist John Abraham and run-stuffer Matt Shaughnessy. They drafted inside thumper Kevin Minter and a potential pass rusher in Alex Okafor, and they signed up-and-comer Lorenzo Alexander, who was a special-teams Pro Bowl selection with the Redskins last season.
Will the pass rush be more consistent? The Cardinals’ sack number last season (38) ranked 11th in the NFL. On the surface, that looks pretty good. But many of those sacks came out of blitz packages that exposed the defense on the back end. Arians and new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles hope to accomplish something similar (or better) through four-man pressure up front. O’Brien Schofield was jettisoned after a few injury-plagued and underperforming seasons, but the Cards hope that Sam Acho will continue to progress while Washington, Dansby and Abraham and Alexander can bring more heat along with the ends, Darnell Dockett and Campbell, who have been freed from some of their gap responsibilities to get upfield and pressure the QBs.
How much does Abraham have left in the tank? He is 35, but he’s still the NFL’s active sacks leader (122) and needs just 20 more to move into fifth place on the all-time list — and if the limited reps in the preseason are any indication, he can still bring the heat. Abraham’s work ethic has come under scrutiny in the past, but a change of venue, a new staff and new teammates may help solve that potential problem in the short term of a two-year contract.
Will the new additions help the Cards stop the run? Arizona ranked 28th against the run last season (137 yards per game). That has to improve. Some of that must come from the line, most notable nose tackle Dan Williams, who needs to bring it this season to warrant his first-round draft status in 2010. But the Cards added Shaughnessy and Minter, in particular, to help in this area, while also counting on their scheme to forge improvement.
What will the linebacking corps look like when Washington returns? Aside from better, it will be more versatile. There will be times when Washington and Dansby are on the field at the same time. The Cardinals haven’t revealed much of their plan for when Washington returns, but it’s a good dilemma to have.
Outlook: If the Cardinals don’t witness dramatic improvement from this unit, it will be a major disappointment. There are plenty of playmakers, there is versatility and there is personnel to suit any need. This may be the team’s most complete unit when you factor in depth.