For the first time in the Steve Keim-Bruce Arians era, the Cardinals elected to overload at inside linebacker as Arizona kept five inside linebackers on the team's 53-man roster this season.
The Cardinals' decision was a mild surprise, but started to become obvious during the final week of the preseason when undrafted rookie free agent Lamar Louis played himself into a roster spot thanks to his performance on special teams.
Louis swapped between inside and outside linebacker at LSU and only started three games as a senior, so he's not necessarily an NFL-caliber linebacker. By definition, Arizona can't list Louis as a specialist, and because he'll take some practice reps at inside linebacker, the Cardinals list him at the position.
However, for all intents and purposes, Arizona really has four inside linebackers who will rotate this season, including Kevin Minter and Deone Bucannon who held down the Cardinals' starting spots a season ago.
Kevin Minter: A second round draft pick of the Cardinals in 2013, Minter developed into a part-time starter in 2014 before becoming a full-time player last season. Minter performed reasonably well and racked up 94 tackles last year, but the Cardinals wanted to see more from him in terms of his sideline-to-sideline range as a run stuffer. While it has largely flown under the radar, Minter quietly put together a strong preseason and demonstrated improved run fits against opposing offenses. If Minter shows steady improvement throughout the season and is consistent enough as a run-stopper to allow the Cardinals to play their nickel defense in more base down situations, Arizona's schematic versatility should reach a point that no other defense in the league can rival. If Minter needs additional help in the box, it forces the Cardinals to swing Bucannon closer to the inside and somewhat limits the type of exotic pressures Arizona can deploy.
Deone Bucannon: Bucannon is on a public crusade to avoid being labeled as a linebacker, and because of the way Arizona structures its defense, Bucannon certainly has an argument. Still, Bucannon is in the box so frequently that the Cardinals can't list him at safety, so they've dubbed him the lone $LB (Money linebacker) on the roster. Bucannon is a hybrid player who is part safety, part linebacker, and ever critical. His ability to walk out in space and cover slot receivers is invaluable for the Cardinals because he can do it effectively, and because Bucannon can help disguise the team's defensive coverages. At 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, Bucannon is one of the most physically impressive specimens on the Cardinals roster, because his rare combination of size and speed allows him to play the role of ultimate wildcard for defensive coordinator James Bettcher. If the Cardinals need a blitzer, Bucannon can fill the role, if they need an in-the-box run-stopper, he can play there too, and if there's a shifty slot receiver or bulky tight end giving the team trouble in space, Bucannon is the man most likely to answer the call.
Alani Fua: A former undrafted free agent out of BYU who made the Cardinals' roster a season ago, Fua is Minter's primary backup and a smart communicator on the team's defense. Throughout training camp, Fua demonstrated impressive composure when running the second team defense and always seemed to have the defense organized well. These qualities aren't necessarily glorified when evaluating starters, but if Minter went down with an injury, the most important assets Fua can bring to the field are a strong command for the defense and excellent communication skills. Alignment errors are costly in the NFL, and through camp, Fua made sure the second team defense was consistently in the correct position.
Gabe Martin: Martin was a surprise inclusion on the Cardinals' roster because Arizona doesn't traditionally rotate inside linebackers frequently and he doesn't possess the skill set to play the same type of role as Bucannon. Nevertheless, the Cardinals list Martin as Bucannon's primary backup because in reality, very few teams even have a starting player who can plays the myriad of roles Bucannon can handle. Martin spent most of last season on Arizona's practice squad and appeared in the playoffs for the Cardinals, but his inclusion feels more like a special teams addition than it does an opportunity for Arizona to add to its inside linebacker depth. If the Cardinals wanted a truer depth option, the team would have kept veteran Chris Clemons ahead of Martin. However, special teams success is vital to a team's overall success, so Martin earned the nod.
Lamar Louis: Louis earned a roster spot in the Cardinals' third preseason contest with four special teams tackles including three outstanding plays on kickoff coverage against the Houston Texans. While Louis may never see the field as an inside linebacker, his inclusion on the roster reflects Keim's commitment to adding to the team's special teams depth and giving Arians players who can be true difference makers in this capacity. Louis will likely play on all four special teams units, and could fill roles as a wedge setter on kick returns, an upback on punts, and of course, as the leader of the kickoff unit. Special teams players are evaluated every week because they take up valuable roster space, so Louis' performance will be monitored closely in the early weeks of the season.