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The Cardinals and Panthers Are the Future of Football

They’ve pushed all their chips in on versatile, positionless players — this should be fun

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The Cardinals and Panthers are drafting for the future of football. They’re also on track to be two of the most fun teams in the league.

A quick recap: Arizona used its first-round pick to select Temple linebacker/pass rusher Haason Reddick, then grabbed Washington safety/corner Budda Baker in the second, while Carolina’s top two selections were Stanford running back/receiver/returner extraordinaire Christian McCaffrey and Ohio State hybrid receiver/running back Curtis Samuel. Collectively, these four picks are a great illustration of a simple truth: The NFL is a matchup league.

Pro offenses have increasingly followed the college game and spread out across the field, utilizing three- and four-receiver sets and throwing more passes than ever before. With the pro game more and more coming down to finding and exploiting your opponent’s most vulnerable defender, defenses have responded in kind: The nickel “subpackage” with five or more defensive backs is the new base defense in the NFL, and defenders — regardless of what position they play — that can cover receivers have become essential to every defensive coordinator.

The best way for an offense to create mismatches is to have versatile playmakers capable of lining up all over a formation. Teams covet tight ends that can run block on one down, then split out and run routes as a receiver on the next. They look for running backs that can carry the ball but can also motion out into the slot as a receiver. Conversely, the best way for defenses to counter the versatility of these hybrid players is to deploy linebackers, safeties, and cornerbacks that can do it all, too, whether it’s playing the run or covering downfield with equal aplomb. The traditional lines separating positions have blurred, and Arizona and Carolina have embraced that.

“We love two-for-one players,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said after taking Reddick. “He will have a huge impact in a lot of different positions.”

On paper, the former Owl is a fluid off-ball linebacker on first and second down capable of dropping into coverage comfortably, stopping the run, or darting through the line on a blitz — the last role a hallmark of defensive coordinator James Bettcher’s unpredictable scheme. In 2016, Reddick avoided trial on an aggravated assault charge for a connection to an off-campus fight by participating in a diversionary program. He impressed scouts at the Senior Bowl when he quickly picked up the nuances of playing at the second level. His other role in the pros will come more naturally: On third downs, he can move up to the line of scrimmage and rush the passer off the edge — both with his hand on the ground or standing up. This is something he did often for Temple when he racked up 22.5 tackles for a loss last year, including 10.5 sacks.

Opposing offenses will never really know what to expect, especially with Reddick lining up alongside a safety playing linebacker (Deone Bucannon), another safety playing slot cornerback (Tyrann Mathieu), and a handful of other movable chess pieces across the line and in the secondary. The Cardinals’ selection of Baker in the second round echoes the same theme: Baker’s most commonly cited comparison is his new teammate Mathieu — they’re both undersized, explosive, and capable of playing deep down the middle of the field or up in the slot, matched up with tight ends, backs, and receivers. In theory, Baker and Mathieu can be interchangeable in that role for the Arizona defense — once again, you never really know what you’re going to get — but because the former Husky has the range and instincts to play the deep-center-field safety spot, his addition allows Honey Badger to keep doing what he does best: lurking in the midrange, jumping passes, and creating turnovers.

For the Panthers, a predictable passing game was a weakness in 2016 — the lack of quickness Kelvin Benjamin, Greg Olsen, and Devin Funchess gave Cam Newton downfield meant that almost one-quarter of Newton’s pass attempts were to a receiver who had less than 1 yard of separation, a higher percentage than any other quarterback in the league. McCaffrey and Samuel (who ran a 4.31 at the combine, a number we’d all be raving about had John Ross not broken the record with a 4.22) seem like the perfect antidote to that problem, both capable of lining up in the slot, creating separation in their routes, and giving Newton “easy-win” quick throws underneath. Both should give the Panthers yards after the catch, too.

But that’s not the only advantage Carolina’s new duo presents. By adding two hybrid running back/receivers to their offense, the Panthers should gain the ability to take advantage of any look the defense gives them on any given down. Say a defense counters Carolina’s “three-receiver” look featuring Benjamin, Funchess, Samuel, and McCaffrey with a “light” nickel defense, heavy on defensive backs and short on run-stuffing defensive linemen or bone-crushing linebackers. This should be a common occurrence, and Carolina can run the ball right at it with McCaffrey, Newton, and Samuel, whether it’s downhill or read-option.

Alternatively, if a defense comes out in a base package to counter an offensive look that features both McCaffrey and Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers can just send McCaffrey out to the wing and have him abuse some poor linebacker with a wheel route. This versatility means Carolina should have the opportunity to create mismatches on every single play.

Unless, of course, they’re playing a defense with the versatility of the Cardinals — whose positionless players can play the run or defend against the pass with equal effectiveness. It’s really too bad these teams aren’t slated to play each other this year. We’ll have to keep our fingers crossed for a playoff matchup.