LB Gerald Hayes (Stephen Dunn/Getty)
When Ken Whisenhunt signed on to become the head coach of the Cardinals, he did so with a vision to implement a true 3-4 defense. That plan may take a big hit this off-season, as the team's linebacker corps--maybe the most pivotal position on a 3-4 defense--could be one of its biggest question marks.
The Cardinals linebacker unit was anchored by two men, Calvin Pace and Gerald Hayes. Pace and Hayes tied for the team lead in tackles (98). The fifth-year veteran Pace was the dominant force he was envisioned to be when he was selected as a first-round pick out of Wake Forest in 2003.
The starting linebacking unit is rounded out by the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Karlos Dansby. Dansby was able to notch 97 tackles, despite missing two games with a sprained knee. He also chipped in 3.5 sacks and three interceptions from his weak-side position.
Pace and Dansby are set to be unrestricted free agents and both are expected to garner some serious interest throughout the league. It would behoove the Cardinals to lock both players up as quickly as possible, especially if Whisenhunt is still harboring thoughts of running the traditional 3-4 defense he originally visualized.
Cardinals GM Rod Graves is trying to schedule a meeting this week with Dansby's agent, Kirk Wood, to discuss a long-term deal. The team is also in negotiations with Pace's agent, William Johnson.
Expect Pace's new contract to come through first. If negotiations stall with Dansby, the team will likely slap the franchise tag on him to protect his rights for another season.
With Darryl Blackstock, Monty Beisel and Brandon Johnson in the fold, the Cardinals boast solid depth. Beisel notched 42 tackles last season and Blaystock recorded three sacks.
There are some names on that could draw some interest from the Cardinals, should they be in the market to sign a free agent linebacker. Lance Briggs and Teddy Bruschi are set to become unrestricted free agents. Middle-tier prospects include the Giants' Kawika Mitchell and the Lions' Boss Bailey.
The Cardinals will not pursue any of these players unless Dansby and/or Pace escapes during free agency.
Looking towards the draft, the team could set its sights on James Laurinaitis (Ohio State), Keith Rivers (USC) or Bruce Davis (UCLA). All three are fast, strong run-stoppers who could offset any loss the Cardinals might be saddled with this off-season.
Arizona would likely have to burn its first-round pick (No. 16) to land one of these players, but any one of them could solidify Clancy Pendergast's defense.