TEMPE, Ariz. — Aside from veteran Josh Bynes, linebackers bobbed and weaved their way in and out of the Arizona Cardinals’ lineups in 2018.
Even in nickel packages where now-safety Budda Baker was an interior defender, the linebackers struggled to contain the edges or find themselves in the right position to make tackles under then-head coach Steve Wilks. Arizona allowed 4.9 yards per carry, tied for third-worst in the NFL last year.
Second-year linebacker Haason Reddick hardly got off the sideline until a quarter of the way through the season, but the 24-year-old and 13th overall pick in 2017 finished the year relatively strong.
Now, with his third head coach in three years, the converted edge rusher is exuding confidence. All the excuses about his inexperience as true linebacker could be an annoyance. To him, they can also be used to turn his career into a success story.
“With the experience from my last two years … I feel way smarter, seeing things way faster. It’s just, my continued growth is crazy right now,” he said Wednesday. “Where I’m at right now, I can’t wait to see where I’m at by the end of, like, training camp going into the season.”
As a rookie, Reddick jumped between an inside linebacker spot and the edge pass-rushing position as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. Last season, he worked as an off-ball linebacker in a 4-3. This year, he’s a favorite to start in a 3-4 alongside inside linebacker Jordan Hicks, the Cardinals’ biggest free agent addition.
“I was asked to do a lot of different things,” Reddick said of his career thus far. “All that I can say is that I tried to do what I was asked of as best as I can. Same thing I’m going to do here.”
Arizona’s scheme has changed again, but under defensive coordinator Vance Joseph and linebackers coach Bill Davis, Reddick feels that his experience is catching up to his athletic ability. Playing as an inside linebacker isn’t so different from his role a year ago.
“I really like inside linebacker for the fact that I’m back and I can see more,” he said. “I like the fact that I see certain things, I can be like, ‘OK, I know what’s about to happen … Or why is he standing like that?’ ‘Cause it’s like a game now, like you’re playing chess, and I like that a lot.”
The Cardinals hope Hicks, 26, can help Reddick continue playing catch-up at his position.
“What’s crazy is, I’ve been in quite a bit of defenses before. The last three years (in Philadelphia) is the longest I’ve been in a defense since high school,” Hicks said. “So the fact that I think I have that understanding and have seen quite a bit has helped me a lot.”
Hicks has produced when healthy. In 12 games for the Eagles in 2018, he made 91 tackles with three sacks and five passes defensed. In his first two seasons in the NFL after being drafted in the third round in 2015, he flashed his ability to cover to the extreme, nabbing seven picks and 14 passes defensed in 24 games played.
Just a few weeks into organized team activities with the Cardinals, Reddick said his chemistry with Hicks is already top-notch, as if they’ve been in Joseph’s system for “two, three years.” Head coach Kliff Kingsbury believes Reddick’s physical talents pop in film sessions and added that Hicks’ presence can speed up Reddick’s progress.
“He really moves well to the football. I think he’s getting a feel for being off the ball,” Kingsbury said. “I think having a guy like Jordan Hicks, too, a veteran player, next to him is going to go a long way for him.”
Reddick has never made excuses, not about not starting the first four games of 2018 and not about Arizona’s coaching staffs jerking him around positionally.
He believes the tumult has made him better, and he doesn’t mind that he’s lost his identity as an undersized pass-rusher — that is, after all, what made him a first-round pick.
Even last season, there were signs of promise. Reddick averaged 8.6 yards per reception allowed in coverage, not bad for a linebacker. He was eighth among backers with 18 quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.
Reddick said he worked to maintain his 235-pound frame this offseason. It’s the mind that he wants to improve in order to build upon two up-and-down seasons.
“Nothing really different,” he said of his training routine, “just mindset, what I want out of this year, who I’m going to be this year and you know, what’s my goals this year?”
Of the many coaches, struggles and concepts to learn from as he’s transitioned to the pro game at a new position, Reddick doesn’t want to discuss the cards he’s been dealt.
“It’s the game. There’s always going to be changes,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’m doing what I love and it’s fun, but at the end of the day it’s a job. And whatever the job requires me to do, I have to get it done. I can’t be sad about it, mad about it, nothing like that. If anything, it’s just a fresh start.”