- Josh Weinfuss, ESPN Staff Writer
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But who that next man will be isn’t as clear as the message circulating the locker room.
By not re-signing inside linebackers Karlos Dansby and Jasper Brinkley, the Cardinals sacrificed depth in the middle of their defense. By losing Washington, the Cardinals lost any remaining experience from last year’s club. So, head coach Bruce Arians is left re-building the middle of his defense with a group that, according to ESPN Stats & Information, has a combined seven snaps at inside linebacker for the Cardinals -- six from Kenny Demens and one from expected starter Kevin Minter.
Lorenzo Alexander was penciled in as a backup at both inside and outside linebacker after playing 72 snaps outside last season before a season-ending Lisfranc injury in Week 3. Arizona signed two veterans in the past month, Larry Foote and Ernie Sims, to fill the rotation that will be circulating next to Minter.
“We’ve got a number of guys that are capable,” Arians said. “Larry, obviously, is a veteran with outstanding leadership qualities and has played really good football in the league for a long time.
“Larry’s very capable. We’ve got a couple of young guys. Kenny Demens is having a great camp, and there’s a couple young guys that are playing pretty well out there.”
But the answer to who the next man up will be isn’t cut-and-dried.
Arians said Foote can’t play the role of a three-down linebacker, but he’s expected to have a role on at least a couple of downs.
“I don’t know about three-down, but two downs for sure,” Arians said. “And whether or not we have a linebacker in the game, we got a lot of good safeties that can play linebacker, and we played a lot of dollar (package) last year, we call it. That’s a situation (where) we’ve got three guys that are more than capable of playing that linebacker position as a dollar.”
Sims enters the fray with experience as a replacement. He helped replace Dallas linebacker Sean Lee the past two seasons after Lee went down with injuries.
The Cardinals are spending the final week of organized team activities adjusting to life without Washington. Foote has played alongside Minter with the first team. Demens has been getting more reps. But Arizona won’t settle who is on the roster this week. Arians and general manager Steve Keim have about three months until the season starts on “Monday Night Football” which gives them plenty of time to keep the linebacker carousel rotating with options.
“It’s always an ongoing process,” Arians said. “The bottom half of your roster and veteran free agency, it’s changed a little bit this year with the cap going on. There are fewer guys out there that are available, but you’re always looking.
“(On) cut-down day, is there somebody that you’ll claim and put on your roster and then try to teach him on the fly? ... but those are things that happen every year, so this is nothing new.”
Arizona will have to wait until training camp to get a full sense of how Alexander will play into the rotation at inside linebacker. He is still recovering from his Lisfranc but said he’s hoping to start working with special teams this week and progress into seven-on-seven drills.
Even though Alexander started outside last season until he got hurt, the veteran believes he is better suited to play inside.
“I love it,” he said. “I think it’s better fitted towards my skill set. I’m not a natural pass-rusher, but if I get out there and work at it I’m able to do it. Obviously, playing special teams and playing in space covering kicks is more like a linebacker -- sideline-to-sideline making tackles, covering guys. I definitely think it’s going to be a better fit for me as far as making impact plays on the defense.”
Arians is confident defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will adjust the scheme to fit the strengths of Arizona’s starters.
“Todd will do everything he can to make sure that he puts the guys in positions to do what they do best and not ask them to do things they can’t do just for a scheme’s sake, which he does a great job of,” Arians said.
For example, Minter doesn’t have the same speed as Washington -- then again nobody does -- but his quickness coupled with his physicality make for a different type of linebacker than Arizona had a year ago.
Minter is penciled in as one starter, Arians said, so the next three months will decide who will be along side him for the first defensive snap against the Chargers on Sept. 8 at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Will it be Foote? Sims? Demens? Alexander? Somebody not on the roster?
They are all options at this point, but they will have a week of veteran minicamp and training camp to prove they have what it takes.
“I think the biggest thing is consistency and play-making ability,” Alexander said. “I think that’s what you got to lean on especially that inside guy, especially (if) you’re Mike. He’s like the captain, just like the quarterback of the defense as far as making calls, making sure everybody’s on the same page. Leading by example, also by voice and making sure everybody is accountable.
“Just showing all those traits consistently throughout the week and throughout training camp, and we’ll see who wins that spot.”