GLENDALE, Arizona — When the Arizona Cardinals selected Deone Bucannon in the first round of the 2014 draft, they envisioned a hard-hitting safety prowling the secondary.
But when he was on the field as a rookie, it was mostly as an inside linebacker. That should be the case this year, maybe even more so.
"He's big, strong, fast," coach Bruce Arians said, "can cover backs, can cover tight ends. He's got good length and he's a tremendous hitter. He's got linebacker skills, he's got safety skills. It's good to get him in there the most we can get him in there."
At first, Bucannon didn't like the idea of being moved up to a middle linebacker spot to take advantage of his athleticism and speed. He had been an outstanding safety at Washington State, and when the Cardinals made him the 27th selection overall, that's the position he expected to play.
That's all changed now.
"There's nothing to come to terms with," he said. "I'm a football player first. You can put a position on everybody but at the same time they're here to play football. They're here to get on the field."
Appearing almost exclusively in the "nickel" and "dime" defensive sets, Bucannon played in all 17 games last season. He finished third on the team in tackles with 75 and had two sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Now Arians said he is devising more packages that include Bucannon "where he stays in the game all the time and never (will) be standing over by me."
In a victory over Philadelphia, Bucannon deflected a potentially game-winning pass in the end zone. In a win in Dallas, he stopped DeMarco Murray in an important fourth-and-one situation, and against Kansas City, he forced a game-saving fumble by tight end Travis Kelce in the fourth quarter.
"I just see myself as an athlete," Bucannon said. "You can put me wherever you want. I played a little bit of safety. I played linebacker. I came off the edge last year a lot, too. I mean, honestly, it's wherever the coaches want me to be. I take pride in that and I'm happy that they see me as a player that can do that because I don't think a lot of people can do that."
Against the run game, Bucannon is undersized at linebacker at 6-foot-1, 211 pounds. That's some 35 pounds lighter than inside linebacker Kevin Minter, whose forte is stuffing the ground game.
But Arians said he doesn't think Bucannon is too small, saying Daryl Washington was about the same size coming out of TCU.
Washington, still under contract with the Cardinals, was suspended all of last season for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy and has not been reinstated.
Larry Foote filled the inside linebacker leadership role last year but is on the Arizona coaching staff now, although he has left the door to returning to play open just a crack.
Sean Weatherspoon, signed as a free agent to take Foote's place, has missed all of training camp with a hamstring injury.
Asked what linebacker on the roster has the kind of versatile skills that Weatherspoon has, Arians without hesitation said, "Deone."
Bucannon's abilities give Arizona the option of having up to four safeties in its base defense, with Tyrann Mathieu, Rashad Johnson and Tony Jefferson also filling roles.
It was a shock, Bucannon said, to adjust to playing close to the line a year ago. Now he said he's seeing things much better.
And getting in on more plays.
"He loves to hit," Arians said. "More of the action's up there. You play back in the deep end sometimes you just run around and watch. He likes to be in on the action."
Notes: Arians said he hopes Weatherspoon, running back Chris Johnson and cornerback Jerraud Powers will be able to practice late this week. All have hamstring injuries. .... Oft-injured second-year tight end Troy Niklas re-injured his hamstring and sat out Wednesday's practice. ... Arizona breaks camp Friday and plays its third preseason game Sunday night at Oakland.