Steve Keim hasn’t done a lot to beef up the Arizona Cardinals’ defense this offseason. Aside from adding a pair of intriguing edge-rushers in the draft, Keim has ignored several other key positions, particularly along the front seven.
The Cards’ general manager has also shunned the veteran market when it comes to recruiting on that side of the ball. It’s a curious choice considering there are still more than a few talented free agents available who would instantly upgrade Arizona’s defense.
One of those available players is a linebacker who showcased versatility and a flair for the big play during eight seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. This veteran would give the Cardinals more options at every linebacker spot, and even in the secondary, for coordinator Vance Joseph’s 3-4 scheme.
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4-Time Pro-Bowler a Great Fit for Cardinals
Anthony Barr remains on the market, despite an outstanding pedigree at the pro level. He went to four Pro Bowls with the Vikings and established himself as one of the more versatile linebackers in the game.
Barr became a force against the run and opportunistic in coverage. He recorded 335 solo tackles and 17.5 sacks, as well as breaking up 31 passes, snatching five interceptions and forcing eight fumbles.
More than the numbers, Barr’s excellence lies in the many ways he can used to attack offenses. He’s one of the best blitzing linebackers in football, rushing the passer with impeccable timing and natural aggression, like on this play against the Chicago Bears last season, relayed by Fansided’s Josh DeLuca:
Blitz skills like these should appeal to Joseph, who sends pressure more than most play-callers. By late-October last season, Joseph’s unit was blitzing at the fifth-highest rate in the league, according to Diante Lee of Pro Football Focus.
Lacking a standout edge-rusher after Chandler Jones join the Las Vegas Raiders in free agency could force Joseph to send extra rushers more often this season. Barr would be a key weapon in this approach and somebody who could offer a surprising solution to the Cards’ issues on the edges.
Markus Golden and Devon Kennard are the veterans on the outside, but rookies Cameron Thomas and Myjai Sanders will also be in the mix. It’s an unconvincing group, sans Golden, who led the team with 11 sacks.
Barr could see more time on the edge in Arizona. The 6’5″, 257-pounder spent most of his time playing inside for the Vikings, but many, including the Purple FTW! Podcast, believe he has the attributes to win off the edge in a 3-4:
The view was shared by Walter Football when Barr entered the 2014 NFL draft, with the site describing the UCLA star as a “great fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker.”
Barr could switch to the outside full time for the Cardinals and allow Zaven Collins to stay in the middle. Collins is expected to become the Mike linebacker and on-field signal-caller, despite an indifferent rookie season in 2021.
Selected 16th overall a year ago, Collins struggled to handle the responsibility in the middle, per Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic: “Bad practices, coupled with a nagging shoulder issue, led to a further reduced role. The Cardinals tried to utilize him in other ways, such as part-time edge rusher and special teams duties, but really it was a colossal failure. He had just 25 total tackles in 17 games.”
If Collins flounders again, Barr could slide inside next to another ex-Viking, Nick Vigil, and help replace Jordan Hicks, who went the other way to Minnesota in free agency.
Wherever Barr fits into the linebacker corps, his presence will let Joseph expand the ways he uses perhaps the most flexible member of this defense.
Isaiah Simmons Would Move Around More
Getting the most out of Simmons has been a tough needle to thread for the Cardinals since drafting him with the eighth pick two years ago. Simmons can play multiple roles at linebacker and in the secondary.
It looks like Joseph is content to continue using Simmons at different spots, at least based on his work this offseason, per Aaron Decker of All Cardinals: “During both weeks of OTAs, Simmons has participated with the safeties during drills.”
Keeping Simmons comfortable in various roles has obvious benefits for a coordinator as creative and attack-minded as Joseph. Simmons fuelled a lot of that creativity by getting on the field more often during his second year, according to Sky Sports’ Cameron Hogwood:
With him came the exotic wrinkles and a menu-full of blended responsibilities as Joseph found himself with licence to alternate between 5-2 and 4-2-5 formations in which he could disguise funky blitz packages and that would trust his flying defenders to play on instinct with the security of high safeties to mop up, albeit rare, misfires.
The 4-2-5 would often revolve around Simmons in the ‘star’, the name Nick Saban gave to the extra defensive back in nickel, as the player with the size and athleticism to combat the risk of tight end or running back mismatches in a light-box invite-the-run scheme.
Having a linebacker who can stay on the field all three downs and keep offenses guessing about where he’ll line up and what he’ll do gives the Cardinals an edge. It also takes away many of the ways opponents try to exploit apparent mismatches in coverage.
For instance, Simmons didn’t let the Green Bay Packers take advantage of the Cardinals with a running back split out wide against a linebacker on this play:
Given how often teams play sub-package defenses in today’s league, Simmons can still see plenty of snaps without being a starter in the base lineups. Putting Barr either in the middle to mentor Collins or outside in place of Kennard, would keep Simmons free for vital nickel work.
Signing Barr would add the proven talent the Cardinals are lacking at the linebacker level and give the franchise a better chance of maximizing two of their most high-profile draft investments from recent years.