When the Arizona Cardinals drafted Zaven Collins, it meant the end for Jordan Hicks in Arizona. Hicks’ fate was sealed when general manager Steve Keim confirmed that Collins would start at middle linebacker in 2021. Yet, with Hicks granted permission to seek a trade, and the Cardinals linebacker room retrofitted for a now-seemingly outdated system, the Cardinals may have inadvertently created a problem for themselves at inside linebacker. With other holes still on the roster, Steve Keim might need to reassess his depth at middle linebacker.
Jordan Hicks Departure Leaves Depth Issues for Cardinals
Cardinals Moving In A Different Direction At Middle Linebacker
After the addition of Isaiah Simmons last year, drafting Zaven Collins initially seemed like overkill. Yet it signaled a clear shift in philosophy at the position in Arizona. Kliff Kingsbury has referred to the pairing of Collins and Simmons as the “prettiest linebacker duo” in the NFL. He cited their athletic ability and physical profiles as some of their most attractive traits. Steve Keim’s vision for the linebackers is the prospect of “two really tall, really fast trees in the middle of the field.” It is clear that the Cardinals intend to improve the athleticism at the position.
For the past two years, Jordan Hicks has played at the heart of the Cardinals defense. An adept signal caller, Hicks has contributed the majority of the team’s tackles during his time in Arizona. He is somewhat of a jack-of-all-trades, a scrape-and-fill linebacker who is consistently in the right position to make a tackle. However, for all of his qualities, he is not a freak athlete. He isn’t a downhill threat to the line of scrimmage, nor is he great in pass coverage. Last season, the Cardinals attempted to cover for some of Hicks’ deficiencies by pairing him with a more athletic linebacker. However, in Zaven Collins, the Cardinals gained a more attractive physical profile, with enough intangible qualities to earn an ‘Alpha’ tag in scouting reports. Collins has the potential to be more of a complete linebacker than Jordan Hicks.
Cardinals Depth At Middle Linebacker May No Longer Fit The System
It is almost impossible to find players that match the physical profile of an Isaiah Simmons or Zaven Collins. Their blend of size and speed is a rare combination. Therefore, Vance Joseph has the task of properly utilizing their unique talents. However, this is an issue in itself. A system built around players like Simmons and Collins is going to ask them to do some exceptional things. The other middle linebackers currently on the Cardinals roster are largely special teams contributors. They have skillsets more akin to a traditional middle linebacker’s role.
If Collins or Simmons could not play, it is unfair to expect players like Tanner Vallejo and Ezekiel Turner to fill that role. Simmons and Collins offer the potential for a revolutionary system at inside linebacker, but, unless the pair remain fit all season, it would be difficult to recognize the potential of such a system with the backup players that the team currently has. If the team is to move away from a system with a role befitting a Jordan Hicks-style player, then the team may need to reconsider the composition of their middle linebacker room.
A Familiar Face Could Be Schematic Fit
The role projected for Isaiah Simmons has roots in the Bruce Arians-era. Arians and Todd Bowles’ defense featured a unique role for one of its middle linebackers. On the depth chart it appeared as the ‘Money’ linebacker or ‘$LB.’ The position was essentially created for safety-turned-linebacker Deone Bucannon. A first-round selection in 2014, Bucannon shifted to inside linebacker due to stiff competition at safety.
Despite being undersized, Bucannon’s versatility and athletic talent proved effective. Unfortunately, in the following years, ankle issues derailed Bucannon’s promising career. He has since spent time with the New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons. Bucannon missed almost all of the 2020 season. He landed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in January, reuniting with Arians and Bowles for the playoffs. He was promoted to the active roster and earned himself a ring as the Bucs triumphed in the Super Bowl.
The success of the Bucs’ inside linebacker duo of Lavonte David and Devin White is somewhat of a model for what the Cardinals see in Collins and Simmons. Bucannon’s physical profile, with pass coverage ability and sideline-to-sideline speed, is attractive to a scheme that asks a lot of its middle linebackers, like Tampa Bay.
For Arizona, Bucannon offers a physical ability more akin to that of the projected starting duo than anyone else they currently have on the roster. Granted he doesn’t have the same size, but as a depth option, Bucannon offers more of a schematic fit in the event of injury to either of the two starters. He is currently a free agent and would be largely inexpensive. He has never regained the form that saw him become a star in Arizona, but, as a inexpensive option with an attractive athletic skillset, Deone Bucannon should at least be worth a look in training camp.
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