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Cardinals Coaching Up Depth

Posted Aug 25, 2014

Team has taken players like Demens and Fells to generate back of roster

Linebacker Kenny Demens (54) and safety Tony Jefferson (22) are among the unheralded players the Cardinals have developed into key roster pieces.

It sounds cutthroat, this ‘next man up’ mantra the Cardinals have adopted, but truthfully, it’s hard to succeed in the NFL with any other philosophy.

Injuries, retirements and linebacker Daryl Washington’s season-long suspension have altered the look of the roster quite dramatically in the past several months, the most recent blow coming when Darnell Dockett suffered his season-ending torn ACL.

Coach Bruce Arians pledged the team would regroup after that one, and the defensive line was back to its run-stuffing ways in the third preseason game on Sunday against the Bengals, even without the Pro Bowl defensive tackle.

It’s a reality of the league, where the ability to mitigate damage after injuries can heavily influence team results.

Since Arians and General Manager Steve Keim took over in January of 2013, their goal has been to add depth throughout the roster. Its construction has not been viewed solely through the prism of starting lineups, because attrition is so common that reserves often play an important role.

“Injuries are always going to appear, and not necessarily catastrophic injuries,” pass-rush coaching specialist Tom Pratt said. “Soft tissue, one week, that sort of thing. These guys, if they make the roster as young backup players, they’ve got to be ready to step in and play.”

While some of the league’s stars have the natural ability to lace up their cleats and dominate, the backups have a thin margin for error. Most fit best in certain systems, and the Cardinals coaches take pride in squeezing out every last drop of production.

Wide receiver Jaron Brown made the Cardinals as an undrafted free agent last season and worked his way up to the fourth wide receiver role. With the offseason additions of Ted Ginn, John Brown and Walt Powell, he entered training camp fighting for a job, but has developed so well he is a lock to make the roster.

In an interview on “The Big Red Rage” radio show last week, Keim said Brown “may be one of the most improved players from year to year I’ve seen in my NFL career.”

Darren Fells, a former professional basketball player, looked like a practice squad candidate at best early in training camp, but the retirement of Jake Ballard opened up the fourth tight end spot on the 53-man roster, and Fells is the favorite to win it. He caught a touchdown pass against the Vikings and bulldozed through a tackler to pick up a first down against Cincinnati.

Inside linebacker Kenny Demens was on the practice squad for the majority of 2013 but started in place of an injured Kevin Minter on Sunday and finished with four tackles as he vies for the active roster. The regular season role for this trio and other reserves is yet to be determined, but Demens said it’s the coaches’ mentality of getting the best out of everyone which benefits the entire roster.

“They expect everyone to play at the highest level, whether it’s the first-string or the third-string,” Demens said. “There’s no room for error.”

Pre-snap penalties and missed assignments drive the coaches particularly mad, with the guilty parties regularly drawing the ire of Arians and his assistants for their infraction. The attention to detail rubs off on the players, who aid in the development by being accountable to one another.

“The D-line’s got a rule where you can’t jump offsides or you’ll get fined,” rookie defensive end Ed Stinson said. “I’m not trying to give away my money.”

There are different levels of roster depth, from the players who primarily contribute on special teams to the more heavily-involved backups.

First-round draft pick Deone Bucannon should one day be the starting strong safety, but for now has found a role at linebacker in nickel situations. Bucannon is a physical player, and while he may not yet be ready for full-time work, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is taking advantage of his skill-set in a way that won’t hurt the overall product.

“(The coaching staff) does a great job with two things: They do a good job of challenging young players, working technique, and the other side they do a good job of putting them in a position to succeed,” Keim said. “So many times, guys like Todd Bowles, they understand limitations guys struggle with. They cater to their strength and put them in a schematical position where they are not going to fail.”

When the roster was built up this summer, Arians broke it into two practice groups. One field held the veterans, and the other the inexperienced players. Instead of sitting and watching, it allowed the youngsters the chance to learn on the fly. That way, “those guys get all those reps and they’re not way, way behind when we come to training camp,” Arians said.

With Dockett the latest example, injuries are inevitable. For the coaches, it’s not a matter of hoping for good health, but staying proactive in getting the backups ready for action.

“You try to maximize the use of your players,” Pratt said. “Not everybody has a whole roster full of All-Pro players. Nobody does. It doesn’t always matter if you have the best players or the best team. You’ve got to have the right mixture.”

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