Every season, Dennis Gardeck sets a particular goal, and it has nothing to do with tackles or sacks or anything on the field.
The linebacker wants to be able to make an impact on one new teammate, which can be a rookie or someone else. It can be an uncomfortable feeling coming into an organization for the first time, Gardeck posits, and he can aid that transition.
"I try to take at least one guy along to try and mentor and be a friendly face in the building," Gardeck said.
It's what veterans do, and that's what Gardeck is these days – a Cardinals veteran. Just the other day he scanned the locker room, realizing there aren't many on the roster who have been around as long as he has been.
He's a year removed from a return from an ACL tear, returning to a time when the Cardinals – who always need Gardeck's special teams skills – will need Gardeck's specialized pass-rush efforts after the departure of Chandler Jones.
"You can't replace Chandler Jones, he's a Hall of Fame rusher," defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said. "But as a group, we can.
"With more turns, Dennis can help us. He is obviously undersized but he's a pit bull and he's powerful and he's fast."
Before his knee injury, Gardeck helped rescue the Cardinals in 2020, taking the first defensive snap of his career Week 5 after Jones got hurt, and up until he tore his ACL in Week 15, piled up seven sacks in only 93 snaps.
He slowly returned from his injury last season and ended up with 179 defensive snaps, but was unable to notch a sack, with five quarterback hits and eight hurries according to Pro Football Focus.
Gardeck is loathe to say he was something less as he returned from the ACL – "The standard is the standard, because if you are out on the field, you have to be capable of doing everything" – but acknowledged his body is in a better place now.
Even late last season, during the Cardinals' win in Dallas, he said he felt "twitchier" than he had most of the year.
"I'm not sure I can put it into words," Gardeck said. "I'm not sure if it was mentally of subconsciously or what it really was, but everything feels quicker and sharper.
"It's crazy how you feel so good and then the next couple of weeks you feel even better and you're like, 'Man, maybe I didn't feel as good as I thought I did' but you felt better than the week before."
This time of year, Gardeck likes the idea that Joseph can evaluate him and the others on the roster to see the strengths and deficiencies of each player. Going into his fifth season, Gardeck is able to take a more broad view of his development – and it doesn't hurt he doesn't have to worry about rehab anymore.
As for his mentorship, that's TBD. Gardeck hasn't yet found that player with whom he hopes to impact. He's still scouting, although he noted that rookie linebacker Cameron Thomas might be a possibility.
"I haven't really picked anyone," Gardeck said. "It's 'When the student is ready, the master arrives.' I'm just waiting to arrive."
Images from the sixth OTA of the offseason for the Cardinals.