When the Arizona Cardinals chose Deone Bucannon with the 27th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, it marked the first time a Washington State player had been selected in the first round since the Seahawks took cornerback Marcus Trufant with the 11th pick in 2003.
Bucannon primarily played strong safety for the Cougars, and played it well. He left Wazzu with the second-most solo tackles in school history (268), third-most interceptions (15), and fourth-most tackles overall (348), including a Pac-12 conference-leading 114 takedowns his senior season.
But even though he was drafted as a strong safety and listed at that position during his rookie year, seeing action in all 16 regular-season games and starting nine, Bucannon said, "I haven't really played any safety in the League yet."
"I've been playing linebacker," Bucannon said on a conference call with the Seattle-area media on Wednesday, the week of his team's regular-season finale against the Seahawks at Glendale's University of Phoenix Stadium. "This is my second year really, playing essentially line at the linebacking position."
With the way the Cardinals have been playing this season - carrying a 13-2 record, NFC West title, and chance at the conference's No. 1 playoff seed into this weekend's matchup - Bucannon, and his play at a new position, have started to receive more attention. The switch from safety to inside linebacker - listed as '$ILB,' or 'moneybacker' on the team's depth chart - came because of the Cardinals' depth in the secondary, with Pro Bowler Tyrann Mathieu, Rashad Johnson, and Tony Jefferson holding down the safety spot. That, coupled with what Arizona head coach Bruce Arians called a "void up front" after the suspension of linebacker Daryl Washington and early-season injury to linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, meant Bucannon, at just 210 pounds, was the next man up. From there, Arians said Bucannon became "too good to take off the field."
"Coach BA [Bruce Arians] brought me into his office and he wanted our best 11 guys on the field," Bucannon said. "We're really deep in the secondary and he just thought I'd be best suited to be closer to the ball, based off my play and things like that. I took it with open arms. He said I could get even more playing time than I got before. He said I'd be able to get out there and be an every down guy. When he presented me with that, I couldn't turn it down. I just wanted to be out there on the field as much as I could."
To help better understand his new position, Bucannon said he kept a close eye on players like Seattle's Kam Chancellor, who stays in pass coverage more than Bucannon does currently, but who also spends plenty of time near the linebacker level defending the run.
"The closest thing I've seen to it was Kam Chancellor," Bucannon said. "He's really in the box a lot the same way, and he's versatile. He gets back and he gets at half field, middle field, he gets in the box. He does it all. As far as people that I watch that have a similar type of role, of course he's in coverage more because he's more of a traditional safety. As far as a big safety that goes in the box and punishes linemen, take on pulling guards, and always sticking his head in the fire and being a physical player, definitely Kam Chancellor is one of the guys that I always watch, even now, and even when I wasn't in the League, a guy that definitely is a fantastic player. Evidently as you can see, Pro Bowl selection, one of the best safeties in the League."
In fact, Bucannon said he found time to train with Chancellor this past offseason, trying to "get all the tidbits" he could out of the Seahawks' Pro Bowl strong safety. The two players worked out near Chancellor's Virginia home, a relationship that started once Chancellor learned Bucannon looked up to him as a player.
"It felt like he was a guy that I could relate to and someone I could show the ropes just coming into the League, because I know as a rookie you come in kind of blind," Chancellor said. "I just saw his potential. He's a guy who ran around with a lot of energy, he put his body on the line for his teammates, and you appreciate a guy like that on the field, so I took him under my wing."
Chancellor's tutelage seems to have helped. The Cardinals defense is playing exceptionally well as a whole, ranking fifth in total defense (319.5 yards per game) and fourth against the run (87.7 yards per game), and individually, among star players like Mathieu and Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson, Bucannon has quietly put together a solid 2015 campaign. His 103 tackles lead the team, he was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week in Week 15 after snagging his first career interception and returning it 39 yards for his first NFL touchdown, and in Week 10 against the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field, Bucannon notched his first sack of the season and paced the Arizona defense with seven solo tackles.
"From what I've seen, like I said, he's a guy with a high motor," Chancellor said. "He has a very high motor. He runs around and he's causing havoc, whether it's shooting gaps, running blitzes, coming down-hill making tackles. He's just all over the field. He has a knack for the ball. Just from watching that I just see a lot of tenacity, a ferocious guy playing linebacker now.
"He's definitely taking on that role and excelling."