Position capsule: Inside linebacker

The Arizona Cardinals will have one of their top playmakers, Deone Bucannon, back next season, but the team may opt to replace his counterpart at linebacker, Kevin Minter.

Position capsule: Inside linebacker

Returners: Deone BucannonAlani FuaScooby Wright

Free Agents: Kevin MinterSio MooreZaviar GoodenGabe Martin

Contracts: Bucannon: 2017-$2,452,928, Fua: 2017-$620,668, Wright: $540,000

Current roster number: 3

Ideal roster number: 3-4

2016 performance: The Arizona Cardinals learned exactly how critical Bucannon is to the team's defensive scheme when he suffered a late-season injury and missed the final few games of the regular season.

On pace for well over 100 tackles at the time of his injury, Bucannon finished the season with 91 tackles, just behind safety Tony Jefferson who wound up leading the team in that category. Bucannon began his career as a safety, but has steadily grown into his role as an inside linebacker where he's one of the top cover linebackers in the league and a menace against opposing rushing attacks. Though Bucannon is at his best when the Cardinals have Tyrann Mathieu on the field in a fully healthy capacity, he still proved his value as a former first round pick with an impressive season.

While Minter racked up 81 tackles and posted 3.5 sacks, the Cardinals haven't been as impressed with his production and his sometimes inconsistent play. Minter is a run-stopper by trade, but sometimes picks the wrong wholes due to poor key reads and winds up caught in the wash which slows down Arizona's ability to curtail opposing rushing attacks. While he had a handful of very strong games in 2016, Minter may find himself in a different uniform next season.

When Bucannon went down, the Cardinals replaced him with Gooden and Moore, both of whom brought different talents to the table. Moore was easily the more impressive player and wound up taking the lion's share of Bucannon's reps, and because he'll still be cheap on the free agent market, the Cardinals may look to bring him back as the team's No. 3 inside linebacker or if it can't get a deal done with Minter or another free agent, perhaps Arizona will allow Moore an opportunity to win a starting job opposite Bucannon next year.

2017 readiness: Bucannon's injury exposed the Cardinals' depth at inside linebacker this season as he's one of a handful of players doesn't really have a true backup. Bucannon is the only player on the Cardinals' roster considered a "$ linebacker" and as a result, the team's scheme changed when he went out with an injury. Arizona's linebackers became more run-focused and the flexibility defensive coordinator James Bettcher had with moving pieces in the defensive backfield was suddenly limited.

The Cardinals likely won't find a true depth option for Bucannon because if any player can fulfill all of the responsibilities Bucannon does, that player will have a starting job somewhere in the league. Still, this makes balancing the team's depth chart difficult in the short-term. 

Heading into 2017, the Cardinals need to determine whether they want to move forward with Minter, an average inside linebacker by NFL standards, or pursue other players, be it a more productive, more expensive option or a player like Moore who will certainly come at a cheaper cost and may even provide the same amount of production as Minter has over the past few seasons. 

The long haul: Arizona doesn't have a long-term plan in place at inside linebacker, but with Bucannon's contract set to expire at the end of the 2017 season, the Cardinals may have a difficult decision to make about his future. Because of his versatility, Bucannon will command more money than other equivalent players at his position and because the Cardinals are already paying the likes of Mathieu and Patrick Peterson top dollar, the team needs to draft immediate impact players on defense to give them any hope of signing more of their veteran stars to long-term deals. 

If the Cardinals can't afford Bucannon after 2017, the team may be looking at using a future first round draft choice on an inside linebacker, something it may do anyway this offseason if the right player becomes available. Drafting successfully is the key to enabling team-wide success in the NFL, and inside linebacker could become a priority sooner rather than later. 

Draft need: Medium priority

Position overview: The Cardinals' short-term and long-term plans at inside linebacker depend largely on how the team attacks the free agent market and the draft this offseason. The team may be aggressive in attempting to pursue multi-year deals for either Minter or Moore, but more likely, the Cardinals could go down the path of offering one-year contracts to those players or other veterans and attempting to piece together an inside linebacker unit for one more season.

If the team follows the latter path, Arizona will be faced with really difficult decisions next offseason, but it's an offseason when the Cardinals will have a better understanding of the long-term future of the organization because Arizona has so many important decisions to make with free agents in the coming months. 


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