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Arizona Cardinals NFL Draft preview: Inside linebacker

Arizona returns its two starting inside linebackers in 2016, but the Cardinals may need to add depth moving forward to ensure the position group remains a team strength.

Position: Inside linebacker

Draft Need: Low to Moderate Priority

The Skinny: Arizona’s inside linebacker unit is on solid footing heading into the 2016 season, but we expect this position to look fluid over the next calendar year.

Both Kevin Minter and Deone Bucannon had strong seasons in 2015, but Minter is one of a number of key Cardinals players who will become an unrestricted free agent after this season. Furthermore, Arizona will need to continue to monitor the development of Bucannon, who is undersized for the position but gives the team versatility on passing downs.

The Cardinals had an opportunity to add a veteran piece early in free agency following the departure of Sean Weatherspoon, but elected not to do so which suggests the team will use a mid or late round draft pick on an inside linebacker.

Simply put, Arizona doesn’t have great depth at this position, but the Cardinals have more pressing needs to address in the early rounds of the draft.

Considering the Cardinals flipped their second round selection in the Chandler Jones trade with New England, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if the Cardinals viewed finding a center, a defensive lineman, or a defensive back with their early picks.

There’s also the intriguing possibility of Arizona selecting a quarterback with their first or third round selection, which would bump the priority of finding an inside linebacker further down the list.

Still, it makes sense for Arizona to look at inside linebackers outside of their first round selection, especially if potential impact players begin sliding in the middle rounds of the draft.

Recent Draft History

During the Keim-Arians tenure, the Cardinals have only needed to draft an inside linebacker on one occasion, and they found success with the selection of Minter in the second round of the 2013 draft.

Though Minter didn’t come into his own until last season, he started all 16 games and was stout against the run throughout the year.

Minter is a classic example of how Keim and Arians like to transition their draft picks into impact players, as the organization wants veteran starters to show younger players the ropes early on in their career.

As for Bucannon, the team used its 2014 first round pick to select him as a defensive back out of Washington State, but the Cardinals didn’t draft him with the goal of eventually shifting him to inside linebacker.

Bucannon’s successful transition has allowed the Cardinals to put their focus on improving elsewhere, and now that the team has quality depth at the majority of its position groups, Arizona can look at adding a piece at inside linebacker.

Potential Early Selection

Philip Wright, (Scooby), Arizona: It’s wouldn’t be a surprise if Wright is off the board already when Arizona is on the clock early in the third round, but if the Cardinals do have the opportunity to take Wright, he fits quite well into the team’s scheme. Wright is a tenacious run-stopper with sideline-to-sideline playmaking capabilities, and could figure into the lineup as a rotational player in year one before taking on a starting role in the future.

Potential Mid Round Selections

Blake Martinez, Stanford: Another player who we’ve had the luxury of watching throughout his college career, Martinez is a ball hawk and a sure tackler. Martinez probably doesn’t have as much upside as Martinez, but at inside linebacker, there’s something to be said for stocking a roster with players like Martinez who have a demonstrated knack for making plays from the start of the first quarter to the end of the fourth quarter.

Kentrell Brothers, Missouri: Admittedly, we weren’t impressed by Missouri’s defense last season, but if Brothers slides into the fourth or fifth round, Arizona could elect to bring him in and pair him with fellow Tiger and last year’s second round draft pick in Markus Golden. Brothers is considered more of a run-stopper and somewhat of a liability against the pass, but he could pan out down the road if given a year to learn.

Tyler Matikevich, Temple: Much like Wright, Matikevich is a player who outperformed expectations at the college level, which leads to some doubt about how his skills will translate to the NFL. Even though the Cardinals have the roster in place to select projectable players who may possess raw athletic traits, we still like the concept of balancing that with proven commodities, especially at a position like inside linebacker.

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