CHARLOTTE, N.C. – You can question Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule’s decision to trade for quarterback Sam Darnold, who will miss Sunday’s game at the Arizona Cardinals with a shoulder injury.
You can question him about an offensive line that was average at best before starting left tackle Cameron Erving and center Matt Paradis went on injured reserve this past week.
You can question him about a lot of things after the Panthers (4-5) lost Sunday for the fifth time in six games after a 3-0 start.
But you cannot question him about gambling in free agency on edge-rusher Haason Reddick, whom many around the league considered a one-year wonder last season with the Cardinals.
Reddick has followed his 12.5-sack season in Arizona last season with 8.5 (sixth most in NFL) through nine games in 2021.
The only criticism might be for not securing Reddick long-term. 42 edge-rushers are making more per year than Reddick, 27, on his bargain one-year, $6 million deal.
The top five paid edge-rushers in the league average $24.8 million.
Getting that kind of payday, and the respect that comes with it, is what motivates Reddick as he prepares to return to Arizona for Sunday's game (4:05 p.m. ET, FOX) against the Cardinals (8-1) -- not revenge against the team that almost ruined his career by playing him out of position at middle linebacker his first three seasons.
“I did see them on the schedule, so it was definitely a game that I was looking forward to,’’ Reddick told ESPN.com. “But man, motivation is the same every week. I'm looking to go prove that I'm one of the best edge-rushers in this game.’’
Always something to prove
Reddick had to prove himself coming out of high school, going to Temple as a walk-on after suffering season-ending injuries as a junior and senior. After three years under then-Temple head coach Rhule, Reddick was the 13th overall pick of the 2016 draft.
Reddick had to prove himself again after the Cardinals moved him to inside linebacker, because at 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds, there were doubts he could match up with 300-pound tackles. After starting only 20 of 48 games and collecting just 7.5 sacks in three seasons, he was moved back outside, where his 12.5 sacks tied for the third most in the league in 2020.
Even that wasn’t enough for the Cardinals to keep him. In part due to salary cap reasons, they instead put their money into Chandler Jones (31), J.J. Watt (32) and Markus Golden (30).
“I like when people doubt me,’’ Reddick said. “I was just blessed with this ability and this talent, and I'll make it work every time.’’
Reddick makes it work for a player his size because of what defensive coordinator Phil Snow, who also coached him at Temple, calls “strong hands.’’
Reddick uses those hands to keep tackles with a much wider wingspan and girth from getting their hands on him. Combine that with above-average speed, and he can rush the quarterback with the best of them.
Consistency is his biggest improvement. His 2021 sack total is 3.5 ahead of where he was after nine games in 2020, when five of his 12.5 came in a late-season game against the New York Giants.
Reddick also ranks third in the league in pass rush win rate this season at 29.2%, according to an ESPN metric using NFL Next Gen Stats to determine how often a defender beats their blocker within 2.5 seconds. That’s a big gain over 2020, when he was at 17.3%, ranking 50th.
Reddick’s run stop win rate is way up, as well. He ranked 70th out of 74 qualified linebackers last season at 19.6%. He’s currently 56th out of 80 at 27.5%.
Rhule credits Reddick’s success to “toughness and physicality.’’ It’s what made him a good fit in his rebuild at Temple and now at Carolina. Snow agreed.
“He has some assets that give big people problems blocking him,’’ he said.
No quit in him
Reddick notices what his critics say. He responded to some last week on Twitter.
It amazes me how many people have opinions about what happens on a football field, yet they know nothing about football! #JustShutUpAndWatch— Haason Reddick #43 (@Haason7Reddick) November 3, 2021
Reddick is hoping Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray, who missed last week’s game with an ankle injury, is back to 100% so he can make his point better on the field.
“Playing against guys like him is where you’re able to show the rest of the world and the league what you’re capable of,’’ he said.
Arizona coach Kliff Kingsbury is well aware. He admitted “we would have loved to have him back,’’ but salary cap and other issues prevented that.
He takes pride not only in the way Reddick is playing, but how he handled playing out of position.
“The guy never complained,’’ Kingsbury said. “So I have a ton of respect for him. ... He’s one of the best players on the field when you turn on the tape each and every week.’’
The good news for Carolina is it’s projected to have more than $35 million in cap space for 2022 to re-sign Reddick if it chooses. Reddick’s first choice is to stay with the Panthers and help Rhule finish the rebuild, as he did at Temple.
Beyond being a great pass-rusher, he wants the world to know he never gives up.
“I'm a guy that has overcome a lot of adversity, more than a lot of people can handle when trying to chase a dream,’’ he said. “I believe that if a lot of people were put on my shoes, they would have quit it a long time ago.’’