The NFL is constantly evolving. The 2017 draft showed the Arizona Cardinals are preparing for the future. They selected Haason Reddick and Budda Baker with their first two picks, prioritizing versatility, and reshaping their defense.
Necessity is the mother of all inventions. Football is no different. The cat-and-mouse game has always been the same: Offenses create, defenses are forced to evolve to counter them, offenses recreate and defenses are forced to evolve again.
Some fixes are easier than others. When spread-option football hit the league in the early teens, defenses wer shredded. Then they figured out how to contain it. The fixes were simple: attack the mesh point, overload one side of the formation, and hit the quarterback until the long-term risk outweighed the long-term reward for his team. Offenses were forced to adjust their run schemes and previously devastating QBs like Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick nosedived (the option element being among a bevy of reasons for each).
Other offensive evolutions are not easy to solve. They require more than scheme tweaks. They need a roster overhaul or a new generation of athletes. We’re in the midst of one now: The era of mutant receiving options and the volume of pre-snap movement they induce.
We’ve never seen this much movement across the league – motioning and shifting – prior to the snap. The league average was 40 percent in 2016, per ProFootballFocus, and the two teams that wound up in the Super Bowl – the Falcons and Patriots – moved at over a 50 percent clip.
Movement makes life easier on quarterbacks. It can help reveal whether a defense is in man or zone coverage, help receivers separate from press coverage, and can create mismatches for running backs or tight ends.
It’s not easy to combat. It requires a defense to have a bunch of players with positional flexibility: guys capable of lining up in multiple spots and covering multiple positions, body type be damned.
That kind of versatility also allows a defense to communicate less prior to the snap. Good defense isn’t just about highlight inducing events – interceptions, forced fumbles etc. It manifests in a lack of mistakes – verbalizing the right check, playing with correct technique, hitting the right landmarks and so on. Limiting pre-snap communication eliminates the possibility of potential mistakes.
Adding more defensive versatility was a point of emphasis for Cardinals decision-makers Steve Keim (general manager) and Bruce Arians (head coach) during the draft. They opted to take Reddick with the 13th pick over a more refined off-ball linebacker (Reuben Foster) or a like-for-like replacement for the outgoing Calais Campbell (Jonathan Allen). Keim described the pick as “pretty easy”, per ArizonaSports.com.
Reddick’s ability to line up right across the formation, and do anything from any spot, is exactly what teams are looking for in a modern linebacker.
At Temple, he played on the ball as an explosive edge rusher, but he transitioned through the draft process into more of an off-ball linebacker. In college, he showed he can rush off the edge and stack-and-shed in the run game. At the Senior Bowl, he wowed everyone with his ability to match up with tight ends in coverage, and turn and run with receivers down the field.
Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher has confirmed he will start as an inside ‘backer away from the line of scrimmage, in order to help him get up to speed with the pace of the NFL game and continue to work on his eyes from that position. But his early impact will come as a sub rusher. “We all know, at the end of the day, he can step down on the edge and that’s something he does extremely well is rush off the edge and get on top of offensive tackles.” Betcher told Doug and Wolf Monday morning on 98.7 FM, Arizona’s Sports Station.
There’s some Von Miller to Reddick’s game as a pass rusher. He has excellent first-step quickness, fast hands and trapeze artist-like balance when he dips and bends the edge. He doesn’t match Miller’s size (nor the All-Pro’s instincts), but he can overwhelm offensive linemen with sheer athleticism.
Keim and Arians doubled down on their chase for versatility by moving up in the second round to snag do-everything Baker, rather than take a traditional boundary cornerback, a position of need.
Baker is as close to Tyrann Mathieu 2.0 as you can find. Even Keim can’t help but evoke the defense’s spiritual leader when describing the former Washington product. “When I first throw on the tape and watched him, he gave me some of the same feel that I had when I watched Ty,” Keim said, appearing on the team’s radio show The Big Red Rage.
It’s not just where Baker plays, it’s how he plays. He moves like Mathieu, thumps like Mathieu and impacts the game like Mathieu. He’s the kind of player that quarterbacks have to identify pre- and post-snap. A “figure out where he is” type guy.
Baker could pop up anywhere, at any time, in Washington’s defense: inside, outside middle of the field safety, pseudo linebacker or as a blitzer from any number of spots on the field.
There are, however, reasons why Baker slipped to the second round, even though he embodies one of the league’s most destructive “figure out where he is” players.
Mathieu is a Tasmanian Devil who scurries all over the field in a puff of smoke making spectacular play after spectacular play (man, I hope he returns to full health). But he does so within the Cardinals’ defensive construct. Baker is going to have try to fit in, too. Right now, he’s a see it then fire player. He’s always looking to hit home runs, even if that means breaking the defensive construct and undercutting blocks. If a player does undercut a block, they can’t miss. He misses too often.
Baker needs to play with better leverage. That should come with age, as he begins to understand that it’s OK to hit singles every once and a while.
There are also questions marks of exactly where he should line up when the Cardinals are in a crunch time situation. The slot is where he featured most at Washington, but his change of direction skills are only a hint above average. He’s not the type of player that you would feel comfortable sticking on Cole Beasley or Doug Baldwin in a big playoff moment.
If anything, he may be better suited to sliding outside to corner, while the boundary corner kicks into the slot, though it would likely force the Cardinals into a zone or combination coverage. His eyes in zone coverage are exceptional. He never takes quarterback bait and breaks on the ball with good quickness. At worst, there’s always the option to kick him back to safety if the matchup dictates it.
Adding Reddick and Baker is about evolution, not revolution, though.
It’s not like the Cardinals defense struggled last year. They were the third-stingiest defensive in the league by DVOA for the second consecutive season, though they did it with a different style. There were identity adjustments, like less blitzing; positional adjustments, Mathieu played more middle of the field free safety than at any point in his career; and a schematic necessity to play with two-deep safeties, instead of one, in order to better protect whichever human turnstile was lining up opposite Patrick Peterson.
The organizational shift was clear: From a team that put most of the pressure on its All-Pro laden secondary, to one that demanded its defensive line to dominate games in order to compete. And it did. The Cardinals’ front created pressure on 30.5 percent of quarterback dropbacks, good for second in the league, and they converted those pressures into sacks, finishing third in adjusted sack rate.
They sent less pressure than in recent years. Instead, they relied on Campbell to be a battering ram inside and Chandler Jones and Markus Golden to create plays flying off the edge. A typical play would go something like this: Campbell drawing a double team (usually bullying it, by the way) while Jones and Golden met for a high five at the quarterback.
Now, Campbell has relocated to Jacksonville, brinks trucks in tow. Who will command the necessary double teams inside to create pressure with just their four-four is a question the Cardinals may not be able to answer.
Unless former first-round pick Robert Nkemdiche develops into a one-man wrecking crew (he played just seven percentage of snaps in 2016, though in part due to a nagging high right ankle sprain), offensive lines will be able to slide their protections towards Jones or Golden based on the play design. The pair feasted on individual blocks last year, but as good as they are, neither has shown the requisite skill-set to be a down-in and down-out double-team destroyer. What’s more likely is a return to the blitzkrieg style the team installed under former defensive coordinator Todd Bowles – sending constant five- and six-man pressures.
Reddick and Baker open up a world of creative opportunities.
Bettcher has an inventive mind. He showcased some unique looks last year, including an impressive stunt package from a tilt front that a bunch of offensive lines simply could not handle.
Take this pre-snap look as an example:
Now, there’s a lot to unpack here, but it’s a glimpse into the possible without Campbell; Rodney Gunter was inverted as a tilt tackle, signaling an impending stunt; Alex Okafor, a middle linebacker by trade, was down in a three-point stance as a three technique; Golden, an edge rusher, was lined up in a head up (linebacker-like) stance over the tight end; linebacker Kevin Minter was walked down over a guard to show a possible blitz; linebacker Deon Bucannon was walked down to show a possible blitz; and Chandler Jones was out as a wide-nine technique.
From that one look, all manner of things are possible: Every player blitzes, Bucannon and Minter bluff a blitz, one of them bails out, Golden could drop out, and there’s any number of inventive stunt designs that could be used to get a favorable matchup or get a player free into the backfield.
Those variations lead offensive linemen and quarterbacks to ask the most damaging question: who is coming, and from where?
Here’s how the play above ended: A Chandler Jones sack.
Bucannon dropped out, Golden dropped out and Gunter and Minter ran a twist inside. That freed up Jones to work over Joe Staley 1-on-1 and drop Colin Kaepernick for a loss. Even without Campbell on the field, Bettcher schemed a 1-on-1 matchup for his best pass rusher.
Now add Reddick to that group and things should get more nasty. He’s a more advanced pass rusher than either Minter or Bucannon, plays with more fluidity in coverage than both and he’s capable doing either role inside or outside. And that’s before Honey Badger and Honey Badger Jr. are added to the mix just for fun – who knows what kind of funky spots Mathieu and Baker will arrive from.
Recreating the same style of pass-rush as 2016 will be tough, but they may be able to achieve some similar results. Bettcher has the weapons to create more disguises and to unleash a bevy of zone pressures that keep everyone guessing while quarterbacks fall like flies in the backfield.
How much the additions and subsequent changes impact the Cardinals’ 2017 win total is a fair question. The defense will have to overcome an offense steeped with question marks.
Last year’s impressive effort to drag the franchise kicking and screaming into the playoffs didn’t work out for Bettcher’s unit. The same issues will probably plague the squad in 2017, even if Bettcher’s group is able to maintain their own level of performance. Age is catching up with their offense. Carson Plamer is creaking, Larry Fitzgerald has to decline at some point (right?), and there are questions marks across their offensive line. They will need some Bruce Arians wizardry to get the unit back above league average – finished 21st in DVOA in 2016.
But the 2017 draft was as much about long-term nourishment as it was a quick sugar fix. The Cardinals evaluated themselves, and the rest of the league, acknowledging where the game is going and where their own flaws lay.
Adding Reddick and Baker makes them as well constituted for long-term success against the new style of movement-based offenses as any young defense in the league.