Steve Wilks is a defensive coach who led an underwhelming attack in 2018. Maybe the since-fired head coach was failed when the Arizona Cardinals handed him a roster built around a 3-4 defensive front under the previous regime.
In any case, Wilks’ transition to a 4-3 defense failed.
Pro Football Focus rated a front seven led by Chandler Jones as the 29th-best unit in the NFL. Two of Arizona’s recent first-round picks, Haason Reddick and Robert Nkemdiche, were among the inconsistent yet most regular contributors.
Now it’s on defensive coordinator — or as head coach Kliff Kingsbury says, “defensive head coach” — Vance Joseph to right the ship.
“You can’t flip your scheme without having the right personnel,” he said in February. “Honestly when you’re a 3-4 team, you’re a 3-4 on base downs. Numbers tell you you’re probably going to be 3-4 probably 35-40% of the time. And you’re going to be back to playing 4-3 sub(-packages) 60% of the time. I truly think being a 3-4 in base downs allows you to dictate because the fourth rusher, it’s not apparent.
“In the 4-3, you got four guys with their hands down, that’s the four rushers. In a 3-4, you got three with your hands down, you got four standing that. I think that allows you to stop the run better.”
Yet scheme change isn’t the only factor that Arizona hopes can turn things around.
Joseph’s defense begins with strong pass-rushing and bump-and-run man coverage from its defensive backs. The Cardinals, without Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson, have a decent chance at holding things together on the back end.
Yet all eyes are on the defensive front with many personnel changes afoot.
OLB Chandler Jones
What’s left to say about the 29-year-old? He put up another double-digit sack season last year, closing with 13 to go with 49 tackles. And he suggested then that it was a change to put his hand in the dirt as a defensive end. Now he’s back to outside linebacker, where he played when he set a franchise-high mark of 17 sacks in 2017. If Joseph’s scheme went well for Von Miller over the past few years in Denver, put money on it doing good things for Jones, too.
ILB Jordan Hicks
While other free agent linebackers like C.J. Mosley and Kwon Alexander saw the Brink’s truck back up, Arizona made the relative value signing of the former Eagles linebacker Hicks. The reported four-year, $36 million contract given to Hicks to captain the defense should lead to improvement after the Cardinals saw Reddick, Deone Bucannon and veteran Gerald Hodges struggle throughout 2018.
Hicks, 26, recorded 91 tackles with 3.0 sacks last year and has also proven quite capable of playing in coverage over his four NFL seasons.
DT Corey Peters
The 30-year-old put together his most productive NFL season in 2018, finishing with 51 tackles and 2.5 sacks with seven stuffs. Expect him to be the nose tackle in this defense.
DE Darius Philon
At 6-foot-1 and 286 pounds, expect the former Charger to prove as one of general manager Steve Keim’s better signings of the offseason. He had 33 tackles and 4.0 sacks with a forced fumble last season.
OLB Terrell Suggs
An Arizona-bred veteran now 36 years old, Suggs is likely the starter opposite Jones. He made 34 tackles with 7.0 sacks while playing limited downs last season, his 15th and last with the Baltimore Ravens. At the very least, he’s fine leadership material.
Likely depth contributors
DT Rodney Gunter
Arguably, it was a surprise Arizona had the ability to re-sign Gunter, who as a free agent looked poised to earn a decent deal elsewhere. Instead, the Cardinals re-signed their 2015 fourth-round pick after by far his most impactful season of 44 tackles, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.
OLB Brooks Reed
Having familiarity with Joseph from the former defensive backs coach for the Houston Texans in 2013, the Tucson-raised Reed has been mostly healthy in his eight NFL seasons. As a reserve last year in Atlanta, he produced 24 tackles with a sack and a forced fumble.
DE Zach Allen
This year’s third-round pick was not judged as an elite athlete, but the Cardinals couldn’t look see past his IQ and always-hot-running engine. Keim said not to bet against Allen’s will, and his unique ability to keep his head up and bat down passes last year at Boston College stands out for a player who can make plays in a number of different ways.
ILB Haason Reddick
Reddick has been jerked around positionally in his first two NFL seasons but enters 2019 as a favorite to start at linebacker alongside Hicks. Can he use the experiences of early struggles last year and take a major step forward? The 13th overall pick in 2017 has all the athleticism to succeed and did finish 2018 with 80 tackles, 4.0 sacks and five passes defensed.
DT Terrell McClain
The late free agent addition recorded 17 tackles in 13 games for the Falcons a year ago. He has familiarity with Joseph from his 2013 season with the Texans.
DE Robert Nkemdiche
Maybe it’s not fair to put Nkemdiche here. He’s fighting a late-season ACL tear and was already an inconsistent force since being Arizona’s first-round pick in 2016. Still, there were enough flashes in 2018 to at least put him in this category as Keim gives him one last look before his rookie deal ends. The argument against every time he’s disappeared or disappointed throughout his career: that seven-tackle, 2.5-sack, 3.5-tackles for loss game at the Chargers in November.
ILB Zeke Turner
The converted safety anointed himself as the next Deone Bucannon $LB prospect last preseason. Can he fight his way into a backup ILB spot this year?
ILB Dennis Gardeck
A special teams warrior earned praise from Joseph on the Coaches Chronicle Podcast as a standout early on in voluntary OTAs.
DE Michael Dogbe
Arizona’s seventh-round pick in 2019, like the rest of his draft classmates who joined Arizona, was selected well after he was projected to go in the 2019 draft.
OLB Cameron Malveaux
He’s 24 years old and has two years of NFL experience. He recorded 10 total tackles with a sack in nine games between Arizona and Miami in 2018.
OLB Vontarrius Dora
A preseason star for the Cardinals a year ago, Dora proved himself as a hair-on-fire pass-rusher but must improve his run-stopping to stick.
Outside looking in
Vincent Valentine, Miles Brown
James Folston Jr.
Dante Booker, Pete Robertson, Joe Walker, Tanner Vallejo