"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: Bucannon: 23, Minter: 25
Experience: Bucannon: 3rd NFL season, Minter: 4th NFL season
Contract status: Bucannon: 2016-$2,102,510, 2017-$2,452,928, Minter: 2016-$1,396,903
2015 season quick review: Bucannon was a grinder for the Cardinals in 2015 as the converted safety proved he belongs as a linebacker in the NFL. There were questions, and those questions will persist, as to whether or not Bucannon is durable enough to remain at inside linebacker throughout his career. For now, though, the Cardinals would love to see Bucannon build off of a 112-tackle, 3.0 sack campaign in 2015. Minter, meanwhile, had ups and downs in 2016 in what was his first season as a full-time starter. The LSU product netted 94 tackles and was generally solid, but the team could benefit from improved run reads from Minter this season.
Projected roster status: The Cardinals are in a somewhat fortunate position with Minter and Bucannon as both players are young and playing out rookie contracts which affords the team the opportunity to keep higher-salary players on the roster. Because neither player costs much for the type of production they bring to the table, their status on the Cardinals' active roster is definitely secure in 2016.
Projected depth chart status: While there's always the possibility a player like Donald Butler returns to the form he demonstrated early in his career which netted him a seven-year, $51 million contract from San Diego, it's unlikely any of the Cardinals' inside linebackers push Bucannon or Minter for a starting role. Bucannon is locked in as the Cardinals' Money linebacker and will be through the end of his rookie contract in 2017, while Minter played well enough last season to solidify his status at the top of the depth chart. The Cardinals will want to see continued growth from both players, specifically Minter, but there's no reason to believe either player's starting job will be in jeopardy at any point during the 2016 season.
Position group analysis: The Cardinals are thin at inside linebacker and can't afford an injury to either Bucannon or Minter because it has the potential to devastate the depth chart. Minter's backup, Alani Fua is a second-year player who saw limited time during his rookie season after making the Cardinals' roster as an undrafted free agent out of BYU. Bucannon's backup during the first day of training camp was safety Chris Clemons, who may have to convert to linebacker full-time if he hopes to make the team's roster. In all likelihood, Butler will push either Clemons or Fua (probably Clemons) for a backup role, but that would mean the Cardinals are counting on an unproven player who went undrafted and a veteran who was cut just two years into a seven-year contract to provide depth at inside linebacker.
Moving forward: The Cardinals are in an interesting position with Minter because he proved he deserved a starting role in 2015, but he didn't impress the team to the point where it will likely be looking to negotiate a contract extension before the 2016 regular season begins. Arizona is probably in "wait and see" mode with Minter as the organization wants to evaluate his improvement this year to determine whether it will extend him a new contract in the offseason or whether it wants to pursue other options at inside linebacker. Bucannon, on the other hand, has two seasons left on his rookie deal, and is morphing into one of the faces of Arizona's defense. His transition from the secondary to the linebacking corps went smoother than expected, and if he continues to provide the team with the versatility to play up in the box against the run and cover receivers and tight ends against the pass, Arizona could look into extending Bucannon with a long-term offer before he hits the free agent market in 2018.
Overall value: Inside linebacker is one of the ultimate hard hat and lunch pail positions in the NFL as teams generally don't reward players with lavish contracts, instead opting to pay up for pass rushers and cover corners. Only 11 inside linebackers make more than $5 million annually, which means there's not an inflated market for these players unless they produce at an All-Pro level. Minter's 2016 salary represents the 45th largest cap hit of any inside linebacker in the NFL, which suggests the Cardinals have him locked in a little below his market value, which is to be expected from a former draft pick on a rookie contract. Bucannon's contract doesn't place him among the top 30 inside linebackers, either, and the Cardinals are definitely capitalizing on his market value even though Bucannon's rookie contract is better than most considering he was a first round draft pick. Ultimately, Arizona will be faced with interesting options regarding re-signing each player within the next two seasons, and the Cardinals probably won't be able to get away with keeping those potential contracts as team-friendly as they are right now.