The 2013 Arizona Cardinals linebacker core looks to be a diverse group. It is a group capable of having the flexibility of being used in either the 3-4 or the 4-3 defensive schemes.
In fact, it is my belief that defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will slowly and cautiously incorporate multiple looks in the Cardinals defense this year. Bowles’ coaching experience shows a history with primarily a 4-3 defensive scheme. However, with tremendous success in the 3-4 scheme last year, installed by former defensive coordinator Ray Horton, Bowles will be hard-pressed to stay with the 3-4 look early on.
Initially, the Redbirds will remain in the 3-4 because of the great success last year in that same schematic look. However, because of Bowles’ defensive schematic history (in the 4-3 defense) and the personnel brought in this offseason, it’s likely that there will be a slow transition into his schematic philosophy, or at least the flexibility to do both.
Here is a look at the current linebacker core (ILB/OLB) and who should be the day one starters or at least my best guess.
At inside linebacker day one (in the 3-4 scheme) will be Karlos Dansby on the weak-side and Jasper Brinkley will play strong-side inside linebacker (ILB). When and if Daryl Washington returns after his four-game suspension, it will be interesting to see how all this plays out. But my best guess would be to have Dansby move over to strong side and keep Washington on the weak side in the 3-4 package. This will keep the two best players and the two most experienced players on the field at the same time early on.
However, after Washington returns, Bowles may try to keep the best players on the field and move to more of a 4-3 look. This will keep Dansby and Washington at their normal positions at left and right OLB and Jasper Brinkley at the middle linebacker position (MLB).
In this alignment (4-3), Brinkley would be the run stuffing linebacker in the middle (MLB). This is also his natural position. Look for recent second-round pick Kevin Minter to push Brinkley for playing time sooner rather than later at the same spot.
Even if Brinkley is doing a respectable job at the position, Bowles and the Cardinals may want to get Minter out there soon to see what they have in the former LSU standout at middle linebacker.
At the outside linebacker spot, It will be very interesting to see how all this plays out as well. My best guess in the 34 alignment, the day one starter at left outside linebacker (LOLB) will be Sam Acho. In my estimation, the Cardinals feel he is an up-and-coming, smart, durable and consistent performer. Acho may not be a superstar in the making, but he truly is a solid and consistent performer with even more upside in his future.
I believe the bulk of the competition will be on the opposite side at right outside linebacker (ROLB), opposite Acho in this alignment 3-4. Training camp will decide the starter at this position, opposite Acho. Furthermore, training camp should decide this intense battle between O’Brien Schofield, Lorenzo Alexander and the rookie from the Texas Longhorns and former fourth-round pick Alex Okafor.
It will be very interesting to see how all this plays out; especially if they start utilizing more 4-3 defensive (scheme) looks. It is my guess that Alex Okafor and Matt Shaughnessy will be utilized more in this package. In my opinion Okafor and Shaughnessy were picked up by the Cardinals specifically with an eye on Bowles’ 4-3 alignment. Their body type tells me that. They are bigger-type DE/OLBs, which seems to be more of a match in this scheme.
Additionally, I would not be surprised to see Bowles put Calais Campbell at defensive end in the 4-3 alignment because of his versatility. Also Darnell Dockett and Dan Williams would be perfect fits as defensive tackles in this alignment, which would move Campbell outside as a defensive end.
Finally, by reading the tea leaves from the OTAs and the linebackers on their current roster, the Cardinals will start off the year with primarily a 34 defensive scheme. The Cardinals and Bowles will be hard pressed or very cautious not to damage something that has had great success for the last couple years. Last year, the Cardinals had a top-ten defense. However, from what I can tell, Bowles will cautiously start adding 4-3 schematic looks depending on the matchups week in and week out and because of the versatility on the roster.
Furthermore, both head coach Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has mentioned finding and utilizing the strengths of their players on their roster. So, between Bowles’ 4-3 philosophy and the talent on the current roster, I think they will eventually play both schemes and try to disguise a mixture of both the 3-4 and 4-3 looks to take advantage of their talent and more importantly, to try to confuse offenses.
However, it will be very interesting to see how all this plays out in the next few months through training camp.