The Cardinals are seeking an linebacker in the draft to join Gerald Hayes on the inside.
Eventually, Bill Davis hopes, the Cards will have their own linebacker conveyor belt.
On the outside especially, the team will roll players in – the current starters will be in place and the team will bring in young players who are playing significant time by the end of their second year. Then the Cards can make a transition to a younger guy if needed.
"The perfect scenario, Joey (Porter) and Clark (Haggans) start, the young guys learn behind them and in a year or two, as those guys walk into the sunset, the young guys are ready," said Davis, the Cardinals' defensive coordinator. "And behind them there are a couple of picks. You feed the system."
The Cards are set up that way on the outside. Cody Brown and Will Davis were drafted a year ago for that purpose, and the franchise could look at taking another outside linebacker again in next week's draft.
At inside linebacker, though, the Cards are in a different spot.
The Cardinals have been searching for young replacements inside for a couple of years, but draft pick Buster Davis didn't pan out and undrafted rookie Ali Highsmith is still in a learning stage. So when Karlos Dansby left as a free agent, it created an even bigger need.
The Cards are ahead in one respect. While the timeline is lengthy for outside linebackers in the 3-4 look – because players are usually hand-on-the-ground defensive ends in college – the guys who play inside in college do basically the same thing as a pro.
"I don't think it's a real big transition," said Cardinals' inside linebacker Gerald Hayes, who started as a 4-3 middle linebacker when he first got to the Cardinals in 2003. "An inside guy is an inside guy."
The Cardinals did sign Paris Lenon as a free agent and brought back veteran Monty Beisel. But there is little question that, while linebacker overall may continue to be the team's No. 1 priority, looking inside first makes more sense.
Some of it is logic: Not only was Porter added as the team's "marquee" free agent, but NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said there were an "awful lot" of the defensive end-to-outside linebacker "conversion" players in this draft. With more talent in the pool, a team could wait to find someone. Certainly, the Cards were pleased with the initial returns on Will Davis, and he was a sixth-round pick in 2009.
Most inside linebacker prospects aren't considered first-round material, but general manager Rod Graves said part of that is the depth at other key spots, like offensive and defensive lines, that pushes the linebacking talent down the list. Alabama's Rolando McClain is the first inside man that will come off the board, but there is a chance Missouri's Sean Weatherspoon could be around later in the first round, and there are also possibilities like TCU's Darryl Washington, Iowa's Pat Angerer or Penn State's Sean Lee.
Even if one is an early pick, that doesn't mean Lenon – who would be the expected starter at this point – would be displaced. Not with the way the Cards handle first-year players.
"It's tough to play rookies," Bill Davis said. "It's hard."
But it's all about the process. Players come in, learn, and take over. And the older players leave -- like Dansby.
"It's already weird not having him in the locker room," Hayes said. "We played a long time together. You get used to a guy.
"But you've got to adapt to your changes and keep moving forward."
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