Cardinals ‘moneybacker’ Deone Bucannon explains ‘hardest thing’ about position change
GLENDALE, Ariz. – Deone Bucannon doesn’t consider himself a linebacker.
In fact, he doesn’t even like it when people refer to him as a linebacker.
He’s “an athlete.”
Officially, however, the former Washington State safety is the NFL’s first “moneybacker” – a safety/linebacker hybrid position the Cardinals created for Bucannon in 2015.
“I was fortunate enough the team blessed me with my own little title,” Bucannon told me this week in the locker room at University of Phoenix Stadium.
“I’m not that 240-pound guy in the middle,” Bucannon added, “but I feel like I can do different things for the team and, at the same time, be able to come downhill and be just as physical as that 240-pound linebacker.”
Bucannon may be the first NFL player to be dubbed a “moneybacker” but he doesn’t consider himself a trendsetter. He recognizes former players like Troy Polamalu, Kam Chancellor, Adrian Wilson and the late Sean Taylor as “guys who paved the way” for him to be the first official hybrid player. Even Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame earlier this month, and Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis were hybrid linebacker/safeties during their college careers at New Mexico and Georgia, respectively.
“I guess I was the first to actually be fulltime, coming from being a defensive back to going in the box at the same weight and being able to hold my own all four downs but I feel like other people have paved the way for me,” Bucannon said. “Kam Chancellor, Troy Polamalu – that’s who I watched growing up. Adrian Wilson. A-Dub – he was doing this long before me. He was in the box. He was out there flying around sideline to sideline.
“Those guys are the guys who paved the way for me to be able to do this; to be able to have the coach’s confidence that I’m tough enough to be able to hold my own in the box and get the job done.”
Bucannon’s move from safety came in 2015 after the Cardinals suffered multiple injuries at linebacker, he was asked about changing positions. The Cardinals were blessed with depth at safety that season and it was cornerback Patrick Peterson who actually broke the news.
“Don’t be surprised if Coach calls you in and asks you what you think about moving inside,” Bucannon recalled Peterson telling him. Bruce Arians, who was the Cardinals head coach from 2013 to 2017, did then speak with Bucannon about a new role.
It went from there and Bucannon excelled, leading the team in tackles in both 2015 and 2016.
Bucannon’s success has had a trickle-down effect in what is a “copy-cat league.”
The Los Angeles Rams use Mark Barron in a similar role. The Washington Redskins utilized Su’a Cravens in a hybrid role as a rookie in 2016. The Green Bay Packers moved Morgan Burnett up from safety to linebacker and then drafted North Carolina State safety Josh Jones in 2017 with the intention to use him as a hybrid player. The Atlanta Falcons also selected LSU linebacker Deion Jones in 2016 with same the intentions.
First-year Cardinals coach Steve Wilks, who was the Panthers defensive coordinator last year and on the Panthers staff since 2012, said Carolina selected former Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft with the same idea.
“It gets you into a situation where you don’t have to worry about the games the offense is trying to play with you with personnel groups because you have a hybrid guy who can play linebacker, can hit the run but he has the skill set to be able to walk out and cover the slot receiver,” Wilks told me. “That’s where we’re trying to get in our system. That’s what we’re used to and we feel like we have a couple of guys that fit that mold.”
Bucannon is excited to play for Wilks, who was the only NFL coach to work him out in Pullman, Wash., prior to the 2014 draft. Bucannon said Wilks asked him to be more vocal this season and hopes he can “advance to the next level” of his career.
“It was pretty cool then when I saw him here in Arizona,” Bucannon told me. “He has a defensive mind but does a good job of seeing both sides of the ball. But talking to him, he’s just worried about people playing by their DNA – playing smart and physical and then finishing.”
Bucannon’s transition from a true safety to the “moneybacker” really began in 2014. Then-Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles – now the head coach of the New York Jets – wanted to see how he’d fare “in the box” and threw Bucannon into linebacker drills during rookie minicamp.
There was a learning curve for Bucannon in 2015, but linebackers coach Larry Foote has been instrumental in developing Bucannon. Foote finished his 13-year NFL career with the Cardinals in 2014 and joined the team’s coaching staff a year later.
“The biggest thing and hardest thing was learning the different schemes, like with pulling guards,” Bucannon admitted. “The techniques the D-linemen are doing, the different stunts they do, loops; just different line movements that change your gap.
“At the same time, if somebody pulls, you can be in the outside ‘C’ gap and next thing you know, the gap you’re responsible for can be on the front side ‘B’ gap. Those different things were probably the hardest things to get a hold of; understanding that the game moves.
Your gap you have initially ain’t just gonna be your gap. You can’t just be on the snap, ‘OK, well the play goes, just run to your gap.’
“That was the hardest thing, just knowing that stuff’s going to change and adjusting to it, hammering, spilling, understanding who you’ve got to send the ball to when it’s your turn time to make the play. In a designed run, if it’s two-back, you’ve got to back up a little bit to figure out that you’re maybe feeling off the back. You may be split-flow, you know, just a bunch of different football things and it’s all predicated on the D-line and what the offensive line is doing and understand that you need to adjust to that.
“That was the hardest thing for me because, at first I was thinking, ‘OK, well, linebackers just play downhill and find the ball, but it’s a lot more than that. But Coach Foote has been with me since I started and that really helped me; that consistency.”
The most important aspect of his position isn’t tackling or covering – or even the speed and endurance to play sideline to sideline every play.
“Awareness. Play recognition and understanding what you need to do in a split second,” Bucannon said as he snapped his fingers. “That’s the most important thing. If you’re here, you’ve got all the tangibles. You’ve got the speed, you’ve got the strength. That’s why you’re here. But there are things you can’t teach and you’ve just got to have the instincts for – having that awareness and understanding different formations. That’s what separates everybody from the rest. I’m trying to grow in that aspect. Seeing different things – route combinations; if you see tight splits (on the offensive line), what’s that telling you; what the formation is telling you. Having more awareness and better instincts is just going to help you on top of, if you already have that speed and quickness and that playmaking ability. It’s going to bring you to another level.”
Bucannon is facing another position change this year after Wilks installed a 4-3 defense. Bucannon will be asked to play weakside linebacker with Josh Bynes in the middle and Haason Redick on the strongside.
“This is a little easier for me because now that I’ve been in the box, I understand that at the end of the day, it’s still football and you’re still responsible for your gap,” Bucannon said. “You just have to figure out where that gap is on runs and then drop for a pass.
“It’s still all football and it made the transition a lot easier this time around.”
Training camp has been frustrating, however, because Bucannon has not been on the field after undergoing ankle surgery in May. He said the ankle “feels fine” now and he wants to “get healthy as soon as possible.”
“I want to be out there. I’m a big rep guy,” Bucannon said. “That’s how I learn. Now I just have to get the mental reps. But God has a plan. I’m not going to worry too much about it.”