Current Roster Number: 4 (Alani Fua, Gabe Martin, Kevin Minter, Quayshawn Nealy)
Ideal Roster Number: 3-4
Returning Starters: 2/2 (Kevin Minter, Deone Buccanon)
Draft Need: Moderate Priority
Roster Composition: Arizona’s inside linebacker situation requires a deeper analysis than looking at the raw numbers. By definition, the Cardinals list four inside linebackers on their roster, but the team still technically considers “Money backer” Deone Bucannon as a safety.
When Bucannon’s role within the Cardinals scheme changed last season, the team began denoting him as an inside linebacker on the depth chart, but his athleticism and training as a defensive back makes him much more versatile than a traditional inside linebacker.
Despite having the body type (6-foot-1, 208 pounds) and measurables of a safety, Bucannon has proven he can handle the load as a linebacker and the Cardinals have him penciled in at that spot once again.
Bucannon’s presence makes analyzing the Cardinals’ long-term plan for their inside linebackers more challenging, because in time, the wear and tear of playing in the box could force Arizona to look at moving Bucannon back to the secondary.
In the meantime, however, Bucannon has paired with fourth-year linebacker Kevin Minter in the middle of Arizona’s 3-4 scheme and the duo has performed well together.
Last year, both players topped the 90-tackle plateau and Arizona has one more year to watch the tandem before making a decision about the future of the unit.
Minter’s contract is set to expire at the end of 2016, while Bucannon is on the payroll through 2017. Neither player comes at a significant cost to the Cardinals, who will pay Minter close to $1.4 million this season and Bucannon slightly upward of $2 million each of the next two years.
Behind the two starters, Arizona doesn’t have any backups with considerable experience in the fold. The Cardinals lost Sean Weatherspoon to the Atlanta Falcons via free agency, and were already playing with thin numbers when Weatherspoon suffered an injury last season.
The three players aside from Minter listed as inside linebackers on Arizona’s roster are Alani Fua, Gabe Martin and Quayshawn Nealy. Fua is the only member of that group who saw playing time last season, as he registered seven tackles in 2015.
With Bucannon playing out of his natural position, albeit in a successful manner, and unproven backups dotting the roster, Arizona may consider using a mid or late round draft pick on an inside linebacker.
If general manager Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians are fully committed to leaving the undersized Bucannon at linebacker, the team could also consider bringing in a veteran linebacker on a small contract through free agency to provide depth at one of the most rugged positions in football.
The Cardinals certainly have more pressing needs than adding an inside linebacker through the draft, but it’s fair to say that the team’s roster composition could allow for Arizona to take a chance on a linebacker it likes around the fourth or fifth round of the draft.
If Minter replicates his production from a season ago and the Cardinals receive the type of production they’re expecting from other players like Calais Campbell and Chandler Jones who are also in contract years, the team will have challenging decisions as to who to bring back because of salary cap restrictions.
If the Cardinals are really high on an inside linebacker, they could also consider reaching for a prospect early and addressing needs in the secondary by shifting Bucannon back to his natural position.
Regardless of how the team feels about its inside linebackers, the situation appears fluid and there is some flexibility for how Arizona deals with this position in the future.