New Defensive Additions Creating 'Advantageous' Pass Rush
The Arizona Cardinals linebacker unit looks starkly different compared to a year ago. While it retained All-Pro exterior player Chandler Jones and consistent interior starter Jordan Hicks, multiple other additions have revamped how the position group is poised to operate.
For one, Jones said he is not satisfied with the 19.0 sacks — second-most in the league behind Tamp Bay Buccaneers linebacker Shaquil Barrett's 19.5 — he accumulated last season and instead wants to get that number even higher. He is aiming for the NFL single-season sacks record of 22.5 set by former New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan in 2001.
"Our pass rush always has room for improvement," Jones said Thursday. "Even myself speaking."
Hicks, meanwhile, had 158 tackles with 11 for loss in 2019, to go with seven quarterback hits and three interceptions. Those numbers were tallied over the course of the entire season, in which he did not miss a single snap from 1,133 total.
As for the additions, the Cardinals signed former Detroit Lions team captain Devon Kennard and Atlanta Falcons tackles team-leader De'Vondre Campbell at linebacker in free agency. Additionally, the franchise added two via the draft in their first-round pick Isaiah Simmons and sixth-rounder Evan Weaver.
Simmons is poised to make an immediate impact and will likely compete with Campbell for the other starting inside linebacker spot alongside Hicks. Weaver will likely play mostly special teams.
"For the most part, usually it goes whatever the coaches tell me to play," Jones said of his role this season. "But what's advantageous about this year and what's different is that me and Kennard are both versatile players. I actually spoke to Kennard yesterday about him playing left or right and he was open to playing left and right. So am I. It'll be interesting to see what side we play, what position we play, but both of us are very versatile. It could be a game-plan thing, it could be week in, week out, so we'll see."
The Cardinals' defensive additions were not limited to the linebacker room, although that is where a majority of the pass-rush help will come from. One of the more marquee additions for defensive coordinator Vance Joseph was along the defensive line in former Buffalo Bill Jordan Phillips.
He has already made an impact on his new teammates early in training camp.
"Jordan Phillips is a guy that, he has really caught my eye," Jones said. "I feel like he's going to be a force to be reckoned with, honestly. He's big, he's strong and just even watching some of his highlights and some of his game film, he just blows right by guys. I feel like he's one of those guys that even has more to tap into that he hasn't tapped into yet and when the season goes, I think the better and better you get from reps. I'm excited for him as well.
"And even having [Kennard] on the other side, he's a tremendous player. He's strong. And like I just said previously, he's a very versatile player. I feel like that's going to give some offensive coordinators a hard time to figure out, what side is he playing? Is he playing the Sam (strong outside linebacker)? Is he playing the Will (weak-side linebacker)? Having him and having the new add-ons to our team; that's going to be definitely advantageous for us."
Back in April, Phillips cited playing with someone with Jones' pass-rushing ability as one of the main caveats leading to his decision to come to Arizona.
"Selfishly, it's going to take double-teams away from me and help me get free," Phillips said. "Also, when you have somebody like that who's averaged over 15 sacks for the last few years, you don't seem like a concern, I guess. All focus is on him and I just get to do my thing, but also get to open up lanes for him so he can go do his thing. And hopefully we can be a dynamic tandem."
With players having recently reported to training camp, teams have been on the same page trying to implement the concepts practiced during the virtual meetings of the offseason that took the place of traditional OTAs and minicamp. Jones said he and others feel the potential for this year's Cardinals team is through the roof.
"It's days like this that makes the good teams great and make them excellent," Jones said. "It's what we're doing on the field, we have walk-throughs and things of that nature, but it's all on how well our coaches coach. And our coaches have done a great job of teaching the guys the information. Even the young guys. You see Isaiah, you see some of the new players like [Kennard], Campbell, these guys are picking up the playbook fast. And that's all a reflection on our coaching staff. I feel like the team that has guys honed in more and the coaches are really teaching the players what they need to know by Week 1, that's going to be the better team. And right now, we're doing a really good job with that."