Of the underrated players on the defensive side of the ball, look no further than linebacker Gerald Hayes. Hayes, a former third-round draft pick, enters his seventh season in the NFL and has been a full-time starter in Arizona for the past three years. Along with Karlos Dansby, Hayes supplies the Cardinals with an outstanding duo at middle linebacker.
In addition to being a reliable tackler, Hayes has demonstrated extreme versatility while rushing the passer and in pass defense. In 2007, he set a career high with four sacks and intercepted three passes in 2006. Hayes has also developed into a physical presence, leading the team with four forced fumbles a year ago.
Although LB Chike Okeafor is coming off his lowest sack total since 2001, he’s still a force to be reckoned with as an edge pass rusher. With new defensive coordinator Bill Davis now calling the shots, Okeafor has a chance to resurrect his career during the upcoming season. Okeafor is an ideal fit in the 3-4 defense, something Arizona is expected to continuing utilizing in 2009.
Despite being a 10-year NFL veteran, Okeafor still exhibits tremendous athleticism and durability. He hasn’t missed a game in six seasons dating back to his time with the San Francisco 49ers. Even though the Cardinals recently parted ways with Travis LaBoy, Okeafor will benefit from the addition incoming rookie LB Cody Brown.
Along the offensive line, LT Mike Gandy has taken the reins as the anchor of Arizona’s offensive line. Since arriving in the desert in 2007, Gandy has been a mainstay at the left tackle position. While usually lining up against the opponents top pass rusher, Gandy allowed only six sacks a year ago and did an excellent job of protecting QB Kurt Warner’s blind side.
With a relatively young group of offensive lineman, Gandy’s presence has been vital ingredient of the Cardinals development in the trenches. Offensive line coach Russ Grimm is an excellent coach and teacher but Gandy’s first-hand experience is a great asset for his teammates.
After a breakout 2008 season, it’s hard to consider WR Steve Breaston an underrated player. However, being overshadowed by Pro Bowl wideouts Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald puts him that category. Although Breaston was a standout performer on special teams as a rookie, he saw limited action in the passing game. When given the opportunity last season, Breaston responded with over 1,000 yards receiving.
In total, Breaston racked up 77 catches for 1,006 yards and three touchdowns. Furthermore, when Boldin was out with an injury, Breaston stepped up as the starter opposite of Fitzgerald. With Boldin’s status for next season still uncertain, having Breaston’s ability on the roster is reassuring for the Cardinals’ front office.
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