GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona’s Chandler Jones was a great player on a mediocre defense one season ago, finishing with a career-high 19 sacks and solidifying his reputation as one of the NFL’s premier pass rushers.
Now that the Cardinals linebacker has a little help, he’s got Michael Strahan’s single-season record of 22 1/2 sacks in his sights.
“If there’s a year to do it, this could be the year to do it,” Jones said. “That’s a personal goal of mine. We have more help on our team, we have a better team. You see it on paper, but it’s right there for you.”
Jones’ optimism is understandable. The 6-foot-5, 265-pounder should still be in the prime of his career at 30 years old and he’s had at least 11 sacks in each of the past five seasons. More importantly, the Cardinals were aggressive in the free agent market, adding multiple veterans in an effort to help a defense that gave up the most total yards in the NFL in 2019.
They signed linebackers Devon Kennard and De’Vondre Campbell, along with defensive lineman Jordan Phillips. Three-time All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson should be available for a full season after missing six games last season for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
The Cardinals also used the No. 8 overall pick to draft linebacker Isaiah Simmons, who was widely considered the draft’s most versatile defender.
The addition of Kennard is particularly intriguing, especially as it relates to Jones’ pass-rushing production. The 29-year-old Phoenix native had seven sacks in each of the past two seasons for the Detroit Lions.
“Having two outside backers in this system is always key,” Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said. “Having both guys apply pressure as rushers and forcing the offense to pick their protections on who is going to block those guys. … Hopefully we can get Chandler more one-on-ones.”
Kennard said he’s always had respect for Jones’ ability and it’s been even more impressive to watch him up close. Both players have the ability to play on the left or right side of the field and have said they’ll do whatever is best for the team.
“I really respect a superstar of his caliber having the work ethic that he does and the attitude toward work that he brings every day,” Kennard said. “The positive energy and all those things.”
Jones’ stellar four seasons in the desert have gone largely unnoticed because the Cardinals haven’t been very good, missing the playoffs every year. But the ninth-year pro has been one of the league’s most consistent big-play threats with 60 sacks in 64 games. He also has a nose for the football with an NFL-high eight forced fumbles in 2019 and three fumble recoveries.
“I feel like I’ve definitely mastered the art of the pass rush for sure,” Jones said. “Half of the battle is just having confidence. Knowing that no one can block you.”
Now Jones doesn’t just have confidence in himself, but also the people around him. He said one of his biggest challenges has been building team chemistry in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced almost all team activity online until the past few weeks.
Instead of banter around the locker room, the talks moved to online chats before and during Call of Duty games.
“I’m sitting here at 30 now, with a daughter, so I don’t really have time for video games,” Jones said. “But when I do, I’m always trying to join my teammates cause we’re not in the locker room. I don’t have that time to sit there and pick people’s brains and build that camaraderie.”
Now that the talks have moved from video games to the field at State Farm Stadium, the Cardinals’ defensive promise is coming into focus. After struggling through a big chunk of last season, Joseph looks forward to helping this new group reach its potential.
“We have some ideas,” Joseph said with a slight grin. “I can’t share those, but we have some ideas to use our best players in the right positions. It’s always good to have great players.”
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