It’s evident general manager Steve Keim and the Arizona Cardinals aren’t going to sit and wait around for inside linebacker Karlos Dansby to make a decision about his future. According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, the Cardinals are trying to get in contact with the agent of inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Jackson, he was a second-round pick of the Cleveland Browns in 2006, he led the NFL in tackles in 2008 and has amassed 824 tackles, 11.5 quarterback sacks and eight interceptions over the course of his eight-year career.
Clearly, the Cardinals are bound and determined to bring in another veteran if Dansby doesn’t return. This is a bit surprising considering the organization drafted inside linebacker Kevin Minter out of LSU in the second round of last year's draft.
Arians also said the #AZCardinals offered LB Karlos Dansby a contract the day after the season ended. Sides still negotiating.— Kyle Odegard (@Kyle_Odegard) February 28, 2014
Nevertheless, if Arizona is set on playing a veteran next to fellow inside linebacker Daryl Washington, the Cardinals are wise for seeking Jackson out. He would be a flawless complement to Washington. Why? Because he wouldn’t be asked to do too much.
Toward the end of his tenure in Cleveland, he was asked to do too much. The Browns wanted him to be the anchor of their 3-4 defense. Unfortunately, Jackson is not a game-changing playmaker. He’s a middle-of-the-road player who excels with a strong supporting cast.
The good news is in Arizona the Cardinals wouldn’t give him more than he could handle. Jackson would be asked to play the same role Dansby did last year. This, in turn, means he will have to play nearly 100 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, effectively rush the passer and cover pass-catchers out of the backfield.
Based on Jackson’s play in 2012 and 2013, he would be a nice addition to defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ blitz-heavy scheme. Even though he was only asked to blitz 9.3 percent of the time under Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton, he registered a quarterback pressure 13.7 percent of the time on pass-rush snaps.
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Pro Football Focus
Coincidentally enough, his percentage was comparable to Dansby’s. On 158 pass-rush snaps last season, Dansby tallied a quarterback pressure 14.5 percent of the time. One would have to think Jackson would have finished with a stat line that rivaled Dansby’s if he would have been allowed to pin his ears back and get after the quarterback more.
However, that is the biggest difference between Bowles’ defense and Horton’s defense. Horton will throw exotic looks at opposing offenses, but he won’t necessarily blitz out of those exotic looks. That’s where he and Bowles differ.
Per Doug Farrar of SI.com, the Cardinals not only blitzed more than any other team in the NFL, they blitzed more on first down than any other team in the league. Let’s not forget, Bowles’ defense also does a very good job of disguising its pressures. That says a lot about the creativity of the defensive coaching staff.
Here’s what the legendary Greg Cosell of NFL Films had to say about Bowles’ scheme compared to Horton’s, via Doug Farrar of SI.com:
I would argue that Bowles is even more creative with his pressures than Horton. Because Horton, while he was very good, he was out of that Dick LeBeau/Dom Capers school. Not that it’s not creative, but there are certain blitz concepts that all those guys use. Bowles is great with triple A-gap pressure, and that’s almost impossible to pick up.
Yet, blitzing and rushing the passer are merely one aspect of Bowles’ scheme. As I mentioned above, inside linebackers in his defense must be able to cover pass-catchers out of the backfield. Lo and behold, Jackson has been incredibly reliable in coverage the last two years.
According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Jackson garnered a combined coverage grade of plus-6.2 in 2012 and 2013. In comparison, that’s the same exact coverage grade as Washington. Furthermore, his plus-6.2 grade was greater than that of Carolina Panthers inside linebacker Luke Kuechly and Seattle Seahawks inside linebacker Bobby Wagner.
Let that sink in for a moment. As far as linebackers go, Kuechly and Wagner are both viewed as topnotch cover guys. At 30 years of age, can Jackson sustain his high level of play? When you run the numbers and break down his play on tape, there’s no question he can sustain his high level of play.
Still, there are two major hurdles the Cardinals have to overcome before they decide Jackson is their guy.
Despite his high tackle total, D'Qwell Jackson had the 2nd-worst @PFF run defense grade of any ILB over the last 2 seasons.— Pete Damilatis (@PFF_Pete) February 26, 2014
Keim, Bowles and head coach Bruce Arians have to conclude that Jackson’s problems against the run can be fixed. Since PFF started grading games in 2007, the 240-pound thumper has only turned in two seasons where he graded out above average versus the run. In 2009, he accumulated a plus-0.9 grade. Then, in 2011, he accrued a plus-nine grade.
Outside of that, his play against the run has been atrocious. In 2013, he was the seventh-worst inside linebacker in terms of playing the run. One year earlier, his negative-9.6 grade was the fifth-worst inside linebacker run grade.
Obviously, his deficiencies versus the run show up on tape. Yet, there are times when I felt like the defensive linemen in front of him could have done more. The Browns’ defensive tackles didn’t exactly eat up blockers at the point of attack. On multiple occasions, opposing offensive linemen got to their second-level blocks with ease.
To successfully play the run as an inside linebacker, your defensive line has to do its part and prevent offensive linemen from getting to the second level. There are only a handful of inside linebackers (Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman) who can consistently shed second-level blocks and win at the point of attack.
With the Cardinals defensive line in front of him, Jackson would immediately become a better run defender. I’m not saying he would morph into Brandon Spikes because Spikes is the best in the business when it comes to playing the run. However, I do believe he would revert back to his 2009 form.
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Over the Cap
Aside from his inefficiencies in the run game, the other thing Arizona’s decision-makers have to weigh is Jackson’s worth. Is he worth the $5 million he made in 2013? No, but he is worth the $2.25 million Dansby made last season.
The Cardinals can’t afford to sign him to a multiyear deal, especially if they want Minter to take over in 2015. So, they will have to convince Jackson that playing for a winning organization is more important than chasing the money.
Jackson turns 31 in September, which means he may be ready to play for a contender and take less money in the process.
It’s easy to see why Arizona is pursuing Jackson and doing everything in its power to bring him in for a visit. He could fill Dansby’s role at a moment’s notice, and the Cardinals defense wouldn’t miss a beat. That’s the type of stopgap player Bowles needs at inside linebacker.