2016 in review: Gooden, Wright

The Arizona Cardinals added a pair of inside linebackers late in the season that could turn out to be valuable special teams assets in 2017 if they make the 53-man roster.

When the Arizona Cardinals began the regular season, general manage Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians agreed to keep five inside linebackers on the team's 53-man roster.

Though Arizona only uses two inside linebackers on the field at once in its 3-4 scheme, the Cardinals did so because players like Gabe Martin and Lamar Louis projected as key special teams contributors.

Essentially, Arizona never planned on playing anyone other than Kevin Minter and Deone Bucannon if it didn't have to, and the Cardinals were able to execute the plan for most of the regular season.

Even though the team's primary reserve at the position, Alani Fua, went down with a season-ending injury early in the year, the Cardinals felt Minter and Bucannon were capable of serving as every-down players for Arizona's defense. 

However, as Minter and Bucannon remained healthy, the Cardinals' backups began falling like flies. First it was Louis, who became an early season roster casualty. Then it was Fua, who was put on injured reserve after a week three injury.

By week 10, Martin was down for the count, and Arizona's depth at inside linebacker had completely turned over since the start of the season.

When Bucannon suffered an ankle injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the season in week 14 against Miami, the Cardinals were left with three players who all began the season with other franchises.

Though neither Zaviar Gooden or Scooby Wright saw extensive time in Bucannon's spot --those reps went to Sio Moore-- both players impressed the Cardinals with their special teams contributions.

Gooden, Wright in 2016

When Martin went down with an injury in week 10, the Cardinals immediately scooped up Gooden, who began the season with the Detroit Lions before becoming a roster casualty after just one game.

Gooden proved himself as a viable special teams asset, drawing praise from Arians for his ability to step in and play immediately in the wake of all the sudden losses the Cardinals had suffered throughout the regular season.

When week 14 came around and Bucannon found himself on the sideline, it was Gooden, not Moore, who actually earned the first crack as Bucannon's replacement. However, that experiment was short-lived, as the Cardinals realized Moore was a better sideline-to-sideline run-stopper and had more experience roaming the middle of the field in a 3-4 scheme.

In Wright's case, the Cardinals signed him late in the season when it became apparent the team wasn't going to make a playoff push. Though Arizona wanted Wright to sign as an undrafted free agent coming out of Arizona, the Cleveland Browns drafted Wright in the seventh round of the NFL Draft and placed him on the practice squad two weeks into the regular season.

While Wright ended up playing as a special teams contributor in two games for Arizona, Arians said one of the reasons the franchise took a chance on Wright late in the year was to evaluate him as a linebacker in a practice setting.

Ultimately, the Cardinals were pleased with the efforts of Gooden and Wright, especially considering neither player was in the team's plans at the beginning of the season. 

Gooden, Wright in 2017

Though Arizona liked what it saw from Gooden and Wright, it's unlikely that either player will be a priority for Arizona during free agency.

If either player receives an opportunity with another franchise, it's unlikely the Cardinals would make a significant push to re-sign either Gooden or Wright, especially in light of the team's recent decision to re-sign Martin. Of all the reserve linebackers Arizona used in 2017, whether on defense or on special teams, it's Moore who has the best shot of returning to the Cardinals with an opportunity to make an impact moving forward.

Heading into free agency, it's unclear whether Arizona wants Minter to remain in the fold as a starting inside linebacker, or if the team will pursue other options on the free agent market. But until the Cardinals sort out the top of the depth chart, it's unlikely there will be much movement at the bottom of the roster with players like Gooden and Wright. 

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