But by March, a guy who began the season as a backup outside linebacker could end up with the most lucrative contract of them all.
It was an incredible turnaround campaign for Haason Reddick in 2020, who went from an unknown on the edge to one of the league's top sack artists. Reddick wrapped up the year with 12½ sacks and six forced fumbles, both of which were in the top-5 in the NFL.
Reddick, who was a pass-rusher in college but played inside linebacker for the first three seasons of his NFL career, admitted the breakout fourth-year campaign even surprised him a bit.
"As I look back on the year, I started off as a guy trying to find my way, getting back into the groove of rushing the passer," Reddick said. "A guy that was just looking to make an impact for the team. As I look to the end of the year, I did everything I set out to do. … And a little bit more."
Reddick is an interesting case as free agency looms. The former first-round pick is the definition of a one-year wonder, as his production this season was leaps and bounds better than the first three years.
However, it did not look fluky, as Reddick proved eminently more comfortable on the edge. He is still only 26 years old and unlocked the athleticism that made General Manager Steve Keim grab him with the No. 13 overall pick in 2017.
The salary cap is set to decrease next season because of lost revenue from COVID-19, which will put many free agents in a pinch. Reddick may be one of the precious few who has multiple suitors, based on his age, production and positional value.
"Honestly, I've never been in this position before," Reddick said. "This is my first time (heading into free agency), rookie deal about to be up. I don't really know all the ins and outs yet, of what's to happen as far as negotiations and what I'm able to do. But hopefully I get to stay here. I would like to stay here. But we'll see what happens when the time comes."
Reddick started the season strong, with five sacks in the first seven games. He hit a lull over the next five, with no sacks or quarterback hits. Then came the breakout game against the Giants, where he racked up an incredible five sacks and three forced fumbles.
"They have a saying 'Don't chase sacks. Don't chase production,'" Reddick said. "As long as you do things the right way, they'll finally come. Sacks come in bunches, man. So the mentality was to just keep pushing and not worry about the stat line, going out there and playing ball. And then games like the New York Giants game happens, and it takes care of the other weeks."
Reddick is a very self-aware player. When the Cardinals did not pick up his fifth-year option before the season began, he understood the rationale.
"Based off what I had done in previous years, it caused them to make a smart business move," Reddick said.
Reddick seems likely to benefit from the decision, as he now reaches free agency a year earlier, and does so after hitting an important sack threshold.
"I knew I wanted to be a double-digit guy," Reddick said. "I knew I wanted to achieve that goal. This year has been special to me. I feel like a lot of people doubted me, and I knew what I could do. I was able to go out there this year and show that I could rush the passer, I could do it all."
Budda Baker was taken by the Cardinals in the second round of that same 2017 draft. His rise was immediate, as Baker quickly became a perennial Pro Bowler and one of the league's best safeties.
While Reddick's path was more winding, he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Baker as the two best defensive players on the Cardinals in 2020.
Baker was happy for his draftmate, and wants the tandem run it back in 2021.
"He's finally being able to do what he (did in college), and you see what he does," Baker said. "You saw that spark in him. I was glad he was able to do that, and hopefully he's here next year."