"Making the Cut"
As the Arizona Cardinals begin their quest to cut the team's roster size from 90 to 53 by the end of the preseason, we're taking a look at the key players at each position group and determining their odds of making the final cut.
Age: Louis: 22, Martin: 24
Experience: Louis: Rookie season, Martin: 2nd NFL season
Contract status: Louis: 2016-$450,000, 2017-$540,000, 2018-$630,000, Martin: $450,000
2015 season quick review: Louis joined the Cardinals this spring as an undrafted free agent after completing his career at LSU in 2015. The Cardinals' inside linebacker finished his final college season with just 30 tackles for the Tigers and 1.0 tackle for loss, but he spent his days with the Tigers as an outside linebacker which means he'll be learning a new position in training camp. Martin spent last season on the practice squad for the Cardinals after going undrafted out of Bowling Green. Though Martin did not see time during the regular season, injuries hurt the Cardinals late in the year and he was elevated to the active roster for the team's playoff contest against the Green Bay Packers. Martin recorded his first career tackle the following week in the NFC Championship game against the Panthers.
Projected roster status: Although Martin joined the Cardinals for their playoff run, he should find it difficult to make the final roster as he'll have to battle with Arizona's latest free agent signee in Donald Butler. For Louis, the task of making the Cardinals' roster should be even more challenging, as he only started two games at LSU last season and is transitioning to a new position. The Cardinals typically keep four inside linebackers active, and with Kevin Minter and Deone Bucannon returning to the starting lineup and Alani Fua proving serviceable as a backup last season its unlikely the Cardinals will consider keeping Louis. The competition for the fourth and final roster spot at inside linebacker should come down to Martin and Butler, and even though Butler's underwhelming performance caused the San Diego Chargers to cut him in March, the veteran has plenty of experience and plenty to prove which are two factors the Cardinals value.
Projected depth chart status: Minter and Bucannon are locked into the starting inside linebacker positions for Arizona, while the signing of Butler gives Arizona a legitimate depth option. Bruce Arians has spoken highly of Alani Fua in the past, and its unlikely the team would cut an undrafted free agent who played all 16 games last season in favor of another undrafted free agent who has much more to prove. If either Martin or Louis makes the final roster, and Martin is the more likely candidate, they would serve almost exclusively as a special teams player considering Minter and Bucannon rarely come off the field. Technically speaking, a player like Martin would likely be considered the No. 2 inside linebacker behind Bucannon, but in reality, the first linebacker to enter the game in the event of an injury would likely be Fua or Butler.
Position group analysis: The Cardinals are far from deep at inside linebacker, and even teams with great players up and down the roster will be thin at certain positions. Minter had his ups and downs last season while Bucannon has loads of versatility but is still technically undersized for his position. The Cardinals have demonstrated they're quite content to let Bucannon play up in the box, and because Minter is entering a contract year, they're willing to see what they can get from the LSU product as the defense takes shape around him. But if there's anywhere the Cardinals lack the type of high-end superstars they have at corner (Patrick Peterson), safety (Tyrann Mathieu) and defensive line (Calais Campbell), it's at inside linebacker.
Moving forward: Even though it will be difficult for either Martin or Louis to make the team's final roster, there's a good chance one of the players can land with the Cardinals' practice squad. If Butler has lost his touch and Minter makes the team, Louis should be the beneficiary of this because Arizona would have the opportunity to train and develop Louis over a longer period of time as he transitions from outside to inside linebacker. While the team may not be able to focus as much on skill development during camp, a player like Louis could greatly benefit from the chance to compete with the Cardinals on the practice squad. If Butler does beat out Martin, then Martin becomes the likely practice squad candidate and in his second year in the Cardinals' system, he could be one of the first players in line if Arizona needs to activate a player due to an injury to someone on the active roster.
Overall value: Both players are undrafted free agents signed to minimum contracts, so there's really no risk in the Cardinals keeping them around and giving them a shot to prove their worth. Of course, Arizona would prefer to be deeper at inside linebacker, and that's probably why general manager Steve Keim elected to pursue a veteran like Butler, but a salary cap exists and the Cardinals are already cutting things close budget-wise. The terms of Butler's contract have not been disclosed, but it took Butler from March until late July to catch on with a team so it's hard to imagine he's signed to anything more than a nominal contract laden with incentives. As long as that's the case, Arizona doesn't stand to benefit much from keeping any member of the trio of Butler, Martin and Louis on the roster ahead of any other member of the trio, so from a competition standpoint, the Cardinals can simply choose to keep the best player available active heading into the regular season.