Assistant coach Larry Foote talks to inside linebackers Kenny Demens (54), Glenn Carson (hidden), Edwin Jackson (58), Andrae Kirk (49), Kevin Minter (51), Gabe Martin (50) and Alani Fua (48..
The Cardinals' top inside linebacker has barely practiced in training camp. Their other starter has yet to establish himself in the NFL. Their healthiest three-down option at the positon is a safety, and their depth will have to come from an army of undrafted rookies.
Inside linebacker is a position under scrutiny for the Cardinals, and it isn't hard to notice.
"I can sense it when the head coach is like, 'How you feeling? 'How you feeling?' 'How you feeling?' " said Sean
Weatherspoon, the aforementioned leader at the depth chart who has been sidelined with a bad hamstring.
"It's a big year for the linebackers. We want to be great. When we close the doors and we're all linebackers, we're like, OK, we know we're being looked at as kind of the group that really has to step up."
In Bruce Arians' first season, inside linebacker was a strength. Kevin Minter was drafted in the second round but never could get on the field with Pro Bowler Daryl Washington and should-have-been Pro Bowler Karlos Dansby playing well all season. Both Dansby (free agency) and Washington (suspension) were out last year, but the Cards were able to turn to veteran Larry Foote.
Now Foote is retired, coaching the very same position for the Cardinals. And questions stare the Cards in the face.
"I'll be more comfortable when I see Spoon out there," Arians said. "But Kenny (Demens) and Kevin have played extremely well and the young kids are doing a nice job."
The "young kids" are the numbers the Cardinals threw at the position through the undrafted rookie process. Edwin Jackson, Gabe Martin, Andrae Kirk and Alani Fua have all caught the coaches' eyes at one point or another, although none have done enough to jump out in front of the rest.
None will have a spot if they cannot play special teams, which is why the preseason games will matter most to the four.
While Demens and Glenn Carson are in the mix, the Cardinals would like to find a young inside linebacker with athleticism that can extend into passing plays.
"We really don't see ourselves as rookies," Jackson said. "You have to step up and be a man in this game."
Minter, who lost weight in the offseason and is finally over the pectoral problem that hampered him all season, has looked better. But he'll rarely play in anything besides the base defense.
"When he's healthy he's played really good," Arians said. "We didn't bring him here to play dime. We brought him here for Seattle and San Francisco and play the run."
With Weatherspoon sidelined, Arians was blunt when asked if the Cardinals have a three-down inside linebacker. "Deone," Arians quickly said with a smile.
That's safety Deone Bucannon, who became somewhat of a savior as a rookie playing the spot Washington has vacated since his indefinite suspension began. Bucannon has been running with the starters at safety, but in sub-packages, he will likely team with Weatherspoon at linebacker.
"Wherever it is, the fact he thinks of me as an every-down whatever in the NFL is an honor," Bucannon said. "I just want to be used in as many ways as possible. I just want to play."
That seems to be a certainty, especially as Weatherspoon works back to the field. It's not 2013 anymore, although Minter insists he is optimistic with what the Cardinals can be.
"I feel there is no dropoff," Minter said. "Even though those guys they brought a lot to the table, and Foote with, like, 20 years of experience and Karlos had, like, 15, but I feel like we bring youth and fire.
"We are ready to go. I say watch this group this year. We've got something to say."
Images from the tenth training camp practice on Wednesday