After a well-executed offseason that consisted of key free-agent signings and top-notch draft picks, the Arizona Cardinals were delivered a punishing blow on Friday.
The yearlong suspension should come as no surprise considering Washington has been in hot water with the NFL before. In 2013, the All-Pro linebacker was suspended for the first four games of the season after he violated the NFL Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse.
During Washington’s ban last year, Arizona accrued a 2-2 record and inside linebackers Karlos Dansby and Jasper Brinkley made sure Todd Bowles’ defense didn’t miss a beat in Washington’s absence.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) indicates the two inside linebackers worked together to amass four positively graded games, 56 total tackles, five quarterback hits and two quarterback hurries.
However, one shouldn’t necessarily expect similar results from Arizona’s defense while Washington is on the sidelines this year. The Cardinals let Dansby walk in free agency and Brinkley is now a member of the Minnesota Vikings.
In turn, this raises a prominent question: How will Washington's suspension affect the Cardinals defense in 2014?
Based on the fact second-year pro Kevin Minter took one measly snap in 2013 and Larry Foote missed 15 games with a ruptured bicep, it’s safe to say Washington’s suspension affects the Cardinals defense in a big way.
Clearly, head coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim feel the same way. Here’s what Keim told the media on Friday in regard to Washington’s yearlong hiatus:
It’s completely unacceptable that Daryl has once again put us in this position. We all know what the consequences are and we'll deal with them. From a personal standpoint, our hope is that this suspension will give Daryl the opportunity to accept the necessary help and guidance to get his life back on track and we will certainly support him however we can.
By the sounds of it, Keim was completely caught off guard by the length of Washington’s suspension.
Obviously, the suspension as a whole wasn’t a shock to the team because the organization knew about it long before the general public did. With that said, I have an inkling that Arizona’s front-office staff was under the impression that Washington’s suspension wouldn’t span the entire season.
In all likelihood, the Cardinals probably thought Washington would miss the first eight games of the season since he only missed four games in 2013. Radio host Mike Jurecki of Fox Sports 910 shed some light on the extent of Washington's violations:
The natural order of reprimand usually follows a certain course. First-time offenders are generally entered into the program. Second-time offenders are generally handed a four-game suspension, while third-time offenders often receive an eight-game ban.
Nevertheless, it’s evident commissioner Roger Goodell felt it necessary to come down harder on Washington. The message came across loud and clear and Washington was very apologetic in a statement his agent released on Twitter:
I recently learned that I had violations of the NFL Substances of Abuse policy related to marijuana. The Policy is very strict, and I have chosen to take responsibility. I am committed to making changes in my life that will allow me to return to the NFL as soon as possible. I will work extremely hard to stay in top football shape, and will work equally hard to ensure that my life off the field meets the high level of maturity and responsibility to which I am committed. I sincerely apologize to Cardinals fans for the time I will miss. I will work diligently during this suspension and will return as a better man and football player.
As you can see, Washington plainly had help putting this remorseful statement together, but does his sorrow matter? It’s not like he can go back and change the outcome of the positive/missed tests.
No matter which way you slice it, his wrongdoing puts the Cardinals in a tough spot.
Nonetheless, there is a silver lining to the situation. Arizona will now take a long, hard look at its 2013 second-round pick (Minter), and Foote has shown in the past that he is a Pro Bowl-caliber player when healthy.
In fact, Foote is only a year removed from a career season. As a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2012, Foote garnered 113 combined tackles, four quarterback sacks, four stuffs in the run game and two forced fumbles.
Here’s what Matt Miller of Bleacher Report had to say about Foote’s skill set when he evaluated him at the end of the 2012 season:
A 16-game starter in the middle of the Pittsburgh defense, Larry Foote was once again solid in his 11th season. What he lacks in size and strength, Foote makes up for with good quickness and an ability to read-and-react on the go. He’ll track the ball well and reads his keys to find the ball and get there in a hurry.
A smooth mover in space, Foote gets depth and finds the ball well. His range isn’t what it used to be, but coming out of a zone coverage, he can break well on the ball and move to separate the receiver from the pass.
As far as Minter goes, the only thing we have to go off of in terms of NFL evaluation is the way he has looked in practice.
Cardinals linebackers coach Mike Caldwell told Kent Somers of AZCentral.com that the LSU product is making strides.
“He can stop the run; he is working on being a three-down linebacker," Caldwell said. "The run game comes naturally to him.”
No, Minter is not the pass defender Dansby was in Arizona, but that’s okay. Everything takes time in the NFL, especially when you’re only 23 years old.
If Foote can have a bounce-back season and perform the way he did in 2012, and Minter can make the necessary improvements to live up to his lofty draft status, the Cardinals defense should have no problem picking up where it left off in 2013.
Arians and Keim have done an incredible job of drafting and stocking the roster with depth in a short period of time, which means Cardinals fans shouldn’t fret.
One player won’t make or break Bowles’ defense in 2014. He is too good of a defensive coach to let that happen.