Cardinals "money linebacker" Deone Bucannon takes part in a recent OTA.
Deone Bucannon is quick to pay homage to the hard-hitting safeties that came before him.
Players like Sean Taylor, Adrian Wilson and Kam Chancellor proved defensive backs could handle the rigors of playing close to the line of scrimmage defensively -- but none of them quite changed the NFL's thinking like Bucannon and the Cardinals have done the past two years.
Entering just his third season, Bucannon has become a force at "moneybacker," the inside linebacker spot he transitioned to as a rookie after leaving Washington State as a strong safety.
Bucannon is listed at 6-foot-1 and was down to 208 pounds by the end of last season, but still showed he could be used in the box on a full-time basis. He finished 2015 with a team-best 127 tackles, as well as three sacks, three forced fumbles,
two fumble recoveries and an interception which he returned for a touchdown.
In a league that's become increasingly pass-happy, teams aren't looking for thumpers as much as players who can defend the run as well as cover in the passing game. In the old days, Bucannon's 'tweener status may have been held against him. Now it's helping him thrive.
"God gave me this ability to play in the box and also cover people," Bucannon said. "Now there are a bunch of guys in the draft that could do the same thing as well. I'm happy that me and also (Rams hybrid safety) Mark Barron were the first people to do it. The Cardinals paved the way for me."
Bucannon's success has given a boost to physical safeties that may not be a great fit covering in center field, but can do well in closer quarters. Florida safety Keanu Neal went No. 17 overall to the Falcons, and was compared to Bucannon by the NFL Network. USC's Su'a Cravens was a second-round pick of Washington, and said he models his game after Bucannon.
"He plays a lot bigger than what he is, and he makes plays in open space and he's very physical when it comes to the point of attack," Cravens told the Associated Press after he was drafted. "I think I'll do a lot of the same things he does."
The Seahawks brought Brandon Browner back into the fold this offseason, and are moving the former cornerback into a
hybrid safety/linebacker role.
The credit for Bucannon's success, he said, goes to former defensive coordinator Todd Bowles – now coach of the Jets – who tried him out at "moneybacker" just days after the Cardinals drafted him in the first round.
"I played safety a little bit in offseason stuff, but really the first time coach Bowles put me into it was rookie minicamp," Bucannon said. "They threw me in there in rookie minicamp, and they liked me in there. From then on, (then-linebackers coach James) Bettcher decided for me to go full-time the next year to see what happens."
There was a need too, after inside linebacker Daryl Washington – who had defensive back-like range – was suspended.
Bucannon's speed compared to bigger linebackers jumps out. He does a nice job covering running backs in the flat and can be a menace on the blitz. The biggest issue is keeping his ground when offensive linemen try to swallow him up on running plays.
Bucannon is checking to see if added weight will help him be more effective in 2016. Bucannon said he started last season at 214 pounds but dropped to 208 by the end of the year. He's up to 220, and said there hasn't been a decrease in his speed. Bucannon is attempting to strike the perfect balance between staying fast and becoming more durable.
"I've been this weight in college," Bucannon said. "I've been this big before, and I've been on the smaller side. I'm just trying to figure out what the good weight is. Once I figure that out, that's what I'll start playing at."
While Bucannon hasn't pinned down his exact weight for 2016, his position is not in doubt. The Cardinals toyed with moving him back to safety last year, but he excelled so much in the box that he played there all season. Coach Bruce Arians said in February that Bucannon will remain in that role moving forward.
"He is so good at what he is doing, we'll leave him right there," Arians said at the time. "He is such a unique player at that position, to be able to play linebacker at his size, he just gives us such an advantage. We're in nickel defense all the time and he gives us such a fast blitzer, fast player to the football, and he can cover tight ends. So yeah, we'll probably leave him there."
There was a time earlier in his career that Bucannon was hoping to move back to safety, but he's now happy to have found a home at a position he helped revolutionize.
"The Cardinals put me in a position that allows me to play freely and do what I do best," Bucannon said. "It's awesome."
Bruce Arians hosts his annual charity dinner at Steak 44