When the Arizona Cardinals selected Deone Bucannon with their first round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, the organization thought it was getting an immediate impact player in the team's secondary.
At Washington State, Bucannon was one of the Pac-12's most dynamic defenders, who thrived in pass coverage and also demonstrated a strong knack for stepping up and making plays against the run.
Though Bucannon certainly fit the Cardinals' team need at safety and was capable of fulfilling that role, his evolution as a defender during his brief NFL tenure showcases just how rapidly the game itself has evolved in recent seasons.
At 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, Bucannon may appear undersized to play inside linebacker, but by the second year of his NFL career, that's exactly where the Cardinals had him lining up.
Instead of serving as a last line of defense, Bucannon became a permanent in-the-box player, complementing Arizona's other inside linebacker, Kevin Minter.
While Bucannon still thought of himself as a safety, there was no doubt that by the end of his sophomore campaign in 2015, the former Cougar was clearly a hybrid athlete playing linebacker.
The coverage skills Bucannon grew up honing as a defensive back served him well against the versatile running backs, tight ends and slot receivers he was assigned to in the passing game, while his natural instincts as a run-stopper allowed him to flow to the ball with ease and become one of Arizona's very best run defenders.
Ultimately, the Cardinals had to go in a different direction at safety, but the player they chose in the first round in 2014 has turned out as valuable as any of the team's draft picks in recent seasons.
Bucannon in 2016
Entering the 2016 season, the Cardinals and Bucannon came to a mutual understanding that moving forward, he would no longer be considered a safety by trade. Though Bucannon was resistant to accepting the linebacker label, instead of calling him a true inside linebacker, Arizona gave him a new title, bestowing on him the "Money" backer moniker that has become unique to Bucannon.
What exactly is a "Money" linebacker? In 2016, Bucannon showed the NFL it's really just a pure hybrid defender, an in-the-box player with the capabilities of eliminating receivers in pass coverage while still lining up and playing as a run-first defender.
If not for a season-ending injury suffered in week 14 against Miami, Bucannon almost assuredly would have finished with his second consecutive 100-tackle season, as he culminated the year second on the Cardinals in tackles with 91. Though Bucannon rarely blitzed, and therefore didn't notch a single sack, he did have four passes defended as a coverage defender.
While Bucannon didn't necessarily perform as well in 2016 as he did in 2015, likely because of the absence of fellow hybrid defender Tyrann Mathieu, he did play well enough for the Cardinals to consider signing him to a long-term extension prior to the start of the 2017 season.
Bucannon wasn't as sharp in pass coverage this season, sometimes having trouble working laterally as receivers found success on out routes, but he did prove he has the will to step up consistently against the run which is what some scouts around the league feared would be his biggest weakness over time.
Ultimately, while Bucannon is slightly smaller than some of the NFL's other inside linebackers, he plays bigger and has the muscle mass and strong build to compete against the run on an every down basis.
Bucannon in 2017
In the past, the Cardinals have attempted to lock up some of their most successful, most high-profile draft picks to long-term extensions before their rookie contracts expire, so we could see that happen in July or August with Bucannon.
There's no doubt the team feels he's an integral part of its defense moving forward, and Arizona likely wants to avoid allowing a player with his versatility and overall value hit the free agent market next offseason.
Teams could deploy a defender like Bucannon in various ways, perhaps ways the Cardinals haven't even thought of, so to keep them competitive in Bucannon's mind, the Cardinals may need to begin pressing for an extension sooner rather than later.
While long-term doubts regarding Bucannon's durability will always exist because he's technically undersized, Bucannon hasn't shown any signs of wearing down in the early years of his career. When the Cardinals and Bucannon do begin to negotiate, how each side perceives Bucannon's overall value should be a fascinating storyline, because Bucannon has been so reluctant to accept the inside linebacker label despite playing the position at a very high level.