For three of the last four drafts, the Cardinals have spent a high draft pick on a linebacker, searching for a playmaker they have yet to find.
Of the three, 2000 choice Raynoch Thompson has been a success and is coming off his best season. Johnny Rutledge, picked in 1999, was an outright bust. Last year’s choice, Levar Fisher, is an unknown quantity, an alleged starter-in-waiting if he can stay healthy.
“You go get a guy in the second round (last season),” Thompson said, “and I don’t think they will go high (for linebacker) again.”
Fisher will be the key to the Cards. He or free-agent signee James Darling are possibilities to replace the departed Rob Fredrickson. But for the value of the pick, the Cards need Fisher to flourish.
Thompson emerged as the Cards’ best defensive player last season. Having he and Fisher flank Ron McKinnon or Darling in the middle would give coach Dave McGinnis some of the speed he is looking for from the position. If the Cards look for a linebacker in this weekend’s draft, it would likely be during the second day.
“You can never have too many linebackers that can run because that flows over into your special teams,” McGinnis said. “So we will always be looking for guys that can run and play.”
That said, McGinnis added linebacker isn’t a position of “dire need.” That’s probably good, because the talent level at the position in this year’s draft is not incredibly deep. Only two linebackers — Georgia outside man Boss Bailey and Maryland inside guy E.J. Henderson — are projected first-round picks. With more teams using spread offenses, the ability to find quality every-down linebackers has become more difficult.
“It’s not like you can put eight people in the box every down,” Kansas State linebacker Terry Pierce said. “The game has had to adapt to what’s been going on. You can’t just keep running the ball because there are a lot of ways to stop the run. So linebackers can’t be just the hard-nosed linebacker. You’ve got to be a little bit of both.”
For the most part, teams will look at linebackers with speed as their top quality. If Fisher were to start for the Cardinals, it would give them three relatively undersized starters with he, McKinnon and Thompson. Bailey’s athleticism will make him the first linebacker picked — the brother of Washington cornerback Champ Bailey could go as high as 12th, to St. Louis.
“Everybody’s looking for speed these days,” Bailey said. The Cards hope they have been able to find some themselves, but the focus will be on Fisher.
If he can’t stay on the field, the Cards may be looking to spend another second-rounder next year on another linebacker.
“I still have got some very, very good feelings about Levar,” McGinnis said, “if he stays healthy.”
EXTRA POINT: The agent for receiver Marcus Robinson said the Cardinals have suspended negotiations with his client, choosing to talk more after this weekend’s draft. Robinson visited with Oakland and San Francisco after leaving Arizona and is scheduled to go to Detroit and Baltimore early next week.