Cardinals money linebacker Deone Bucannon has excelled after a position switch.
The final six letters of Deone Bucannon's last name are fitting because he plays like he's been shot from one.
When the Washington State star was taken in the first round of the 2014 draft, he was supposed to be a safety. The Cardinals had a deep secondary that season and a void at linebacker following the suspension of Daryl Washington, so in order to get on the field, Bucannon was moved into the box in nickel formations.
Bucannon excelled from the jump, evading hulking blockers and tracking down running backs like a heat-seeking missile, which gave the Cardinals the confidence to leave him there full-time.
Thus, the "money linebacker" was born.
"If you're going to play close to the box, you've got to like contact," inside linebackers coach Larry Foote said. "You've got to have an appetite for violence, and that he has. I don't care if you're big or small. We do so much stuff with him, he helps out our defense with his flexibility. I just teach him little stuff about being a linebacker. I don't coach him like he's 6-3, 250, and I don't expect him to play like that."
Bucannon, 6-foot-1 and 218 pounds, was resistant to the change at first, believing he'd one day move back to safety, but now welcomes his role. He led the Cardinals in tackles a season ago with 127, and added three sacks, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, 17 tackles for loss and an interception he returned for a touchdown.
He still insists he's not a true linebacker – moneybacker and rover are his preferred terms -- but beyond the semantics, Bucannon is a player who could be on the cusp of stardom.
His athleticism was apparent from his first game in the NFL, but there was some turbulence learning a new position. As he better grasps the mental portion of his responsibilities, Bucannon has the ceiling of a Pro Bowler.
"He knows the playbook like the back of his hand now," fellow inside linebacker Kevin Minter said. "He's out there making calls, correcting me sometimes. I'm telling him to be quiet a little bit. Let me be 'Mike.' But no, the kid, he's grown so much in the past couple of years. I'm proud of him. He will definitely have something to say this season."
Bucannon, always self-deprecating , is quick to insist Minter is the point man of the defense, but acknowledges it's his time to step up as more of a leader.
"Every year you want to get better at something," Bucannon said. "This year I wanted to be more vocal."
One thing Bucannon has already mastered is his physical preparation. A switch flipped entering his junior season of college, when he still weighed in at only 169 pounds. One bicep might be half that at this point.
"Deone can bench the world right now," safety Tony Jefferson said. "He's a beast. … He works out lifting houses and stuff."
Bucannon chuckled when Jefferson's words were relayed to him.
"I don't know about a house," he said, "but I can lift hopefully a good amount."
Even bulked up, Bucannon is on the small side for an inside linebacker. Bruce Arians is an offensive-minded coach, and as more teams mirror the Cardinals’ decision to put a lighter, faster player in the box, he explains the way to attack it.
"You still think you can run at them," Arians said. "You don't really want to run at Buc. That's what he loves."
Bucannon has proven he can hold his own against offensive linemen 100 pounds heavier. He has the speed to cover running backs and tight ends. He's also an excellent blitzer.
There are proven stars spread throughout the Cardinals defense, from Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson in the secondary to Chandler Jones and Calais Campbell up front. Bucannon is on the precipice of joining that prestigious group.
"They say your third or fourth year is when the game starts slowing down," Foote said. "The great thing about him is he wants to do well. He studies and he loves football. When you've got that with that ability, the sky's the limit. All he's got to do is keep coming in every day and punching in."
Images from the seventh practice of training camp