Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports

Cardinals' 90-man roster analysis: Inside linebacker

The Arizona Cardinals signed veteran linebacker Karlos Dansby to a one-year contract this offseason with hopes that Dansby can stabilize the heart of the team's defense.

Tier Key

1: Players who, barring a significant setback or injury, will make the Cardinals' 53-man roster this season

2: Players who must compete for a spot on the Cardinals' 53-man roster this season

3: Players who are likely to be cut by the Cardinals prior to the team finalizing its 53-man roster this season

Inside linebackers

Tier 1: Karlos DansbyDeone BucannonHaason Reddick

Analysis: A position group that was relatively thin last season has been completely solidified this offseason, as the Cardinals' top free agent acquisition, Karlos Dansby, and 2017 first round draft choice, Haason Reddick, both play inside linebacker. Over the past few seasons, the Cardinals felt they were getting below average to mediocre play from Mike linebacker Kevin Minter, and the team attempted to reenergize the position group this offseason with the addition of Dansby, who needs one interception to join the prestigious 40-sack, 20-interception club. Dansby is preparing for his third tour of duty in Arizona with a team that values his leadership and play-making abilities, and it's not hard to see why his signing makes the Cardinals' defense a stronger unit. Dansby will also be able to mentor Reddick, a player with tremendous promise who may have a difficult time adjusting to the NFL as a rookie because he's being asked to switch from outside linebacker to inside linebacker. Though Reddick demonstrated proficiency doing so at this year's Senior Bowl, he played fewer than 70 percent of Temple's defensive snaps during his senior season and might be better off playing in a sub-package capacity this season. However, the Cardinals may not have that luxury, because last week, the team announced Deone Bucannon has undergone ankle surgery that will keep him out until at least the beginning of September. The news regarding Bucannon is a big blow to Arizona's defense, and not just because Bucannon was one of the team's top tacklers and most versatile weapons a season ago. Bucannon's injury could force the team to play Reddick before he's ready, or it could force Arizona to try to speed along Bucannon's recovery process, which has the potential to hurt both the player and the team in the long run. The goal for Arizona should be to play Reddick when he's ready to go, and not rush him onto the field because Bucannon isn't healthy yet. 

Tier 2: Zaviar GoodenGabe Martin

Analysis: One of the intriguing battles for a roster spot this season could feature Zaviar Gooden and Gabe Martin, who both provide the Cardinals with special teams value and solid depth at inside linebacker. In our estimation, Gooden is the better linebacker of the duo, while Martin is the more experienced special teams cog, and the health of Bucannon could ultimately dictate which direction Arizona decides to go with these two. Gooden played a bit down the stretch in 2016, filling in for Bucannon when he was injured against Miami in week 14, but he never took ownership of the position and didn't make the most of the opportunity. Martin, meanwhile, finished the campaign on injured reserve after spending the first 10 weeks on Arizona's 53-man roster. It's possible Arizona could broaden out the competition for a job to either of the tier three options, but Gooden and Martin will likely be battling with each other for the fourth inside linebacker spot.

Tier 3: Scooby Wright, Tre'Von Johnson

Analysis: The Cardinals gave Scooby Wright an opportunity at the end of last season when their inside linebacker depth was depleted, but the University of Arizona product only wound up contributing on special teams. There's questions regarding Wright's speed and explosiveness at the NFL level, and even though he was a tremendous college player, he doesn't necessarily have the brute strength and quick-twitch acceleration skills to bring added value to Arizona's defense. If Wright can hang around on the Cardinals' practice squad, there's certainly hope for him that he'll eventually get a more meaningful opportunity, but it could take time. Tre'Von Johnson was Arizona's lone undrafted free agent signee at inside linebacker, and the Weber State product will try to make the jump from the FCS ranks to the NFL with the Cardinals during training camp. Johnson was a team captain and an All-Big Sky product, and if he's fast enough to play special teams, there could be a role for him. 

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