Dennis Gardeck has always been chasing something since getting to the NFL – a roster spot, playing time, quarterbacks – so a quicker way to rehabilitate his right knee after a torn ACL is no different.
"I'm a little bit of a head case, as you might imagine," the outside linebacker said.
There are still weeks to go until even training camp, but Gardeck – who declines to put a timetable on his actual football return but has been doing light sprints since shredding the ligament Dec. 20 against the Eagles – has found a way to balance optimism with practicality when it comes to his comeback.
"It's that feeling of 'I should have done more' that kind of drives me," Gardeck said. "I always feel I need to do the most. (The training staff) are all like, 'Doing the most is not what is beneficial right now. It's doing what's right for your knee.' "
It helps that he's been through this before, tearing the same right ACL the spring of his senior year of high school. That, Gardeck said, has already put him ahead of the curve mentally. He isn't concerned of being wary of the knee once he gets back on the field.
What Gardeck is thinking about is repeating what he did in 2020 after Chandler Jones got hurt, playing the first defensive snaps of his career, turning a mere 93 downs on defense into an eye-opening seven sacks.
Along with his Pro Bowl-level special teams, Gardeck earned more than $2 million in a one-year tender offer as a restricted free agent.
"There is always that question when you're going in practice, going against our starting offensive line and you're like, 'Man I'm ready to be out there (on defense) and doing those things, maybe it's different on game day, maybe I'm wrong, maybe I'm overconfident,' " Gardeck said. "You see it all the time with guys in the league – their ego is bigger than their play. I've never wanted to be that way. So it was, trust the timing, maybe you're not ready for it yet.
"Part of it was cool to see all the hard work pay off, but also it was such a small snap count, such a limited number of reps. I am aware it's a little skewed. I look forward to putting more out there."
The humble tumbles out of Gardeck, insisting that he was helped because the defensive snaps he was playing were passing downs only, boosting his percentage. But advance metrics also show that Gardeck was also earning his sacks rather than just cleaning up pressures by others, and the Cards certainly will be able to use him back in that role even as Jones returns to the field.
Gardeck is hopeful that, regardless of how camp begins, Week 1 is possible.
"I wouldn't put anything past Dennis," coach Kliff Kingsbury said. "He looks great and it sounds like he is ahead of schedule by all accounts, so we will see how he feels going into training camp. If he's not ready for the start, I'd expect him to be ready soon thereafter."
Perhaps the trainers have had to, in Gardeck's words, "re-wire" his mindset through this rehab. He will have the chance to go all out, Gardeck The Barbarian-style, soon enough. A knee injury, no matter how serious, isn't changing that.
"It was a great year," Gardeck said. "Yeah, it was cut a little bit short, but they always say, it's not if you're going to get hurt in football, it's when you're going to get hurt. I feel like I can lay my head on the pillow at night knowing I did everything I could."