Cards expect competition at inside linebacker

Defensive coordinator Ray Horton can't tell you if Paris Lenon or Stewart Bradley is going to be the starter at the strong inside linebacker position.

Defensive coordinator Ray Horton can point out the entrenched starters on his unit just as the most avid fan would.

There are ends Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell. Outside linebacker Sam Acho. Inside linebacker Daryl Washington. Cornerback Patrick Peterson and safeties Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes.

But Horton can't tell you if Paris Lenon or Stewart Bradley is going to be the starter at the strong inside linebacker position.

Lenon held onto the job last season, starting 16 games. Bradley, who signed a five-year, $30 million contract in free agency, never seriously threatened to change that.

Bradley's struggles were with the mental part of the game. He's bright, but he had spent his previous four NFL seasons with the Eagles in a 4-3 defense.

What the Cardinals were asking him to do in a 3-4 was drastically different. Techniques for pass-drops and filling run gaps were different, and that position has the added responsibility of calling defenses.

Lenon, who had played nine years, was accustomed to the system. He proved reliable, and with a defense that already had questions at numerous other spots, the Cardinals needed a steady influence on the field.

But the spot is up for competition again. Lenon turns 35 during the season, and while he's in supreme condition, the Cardinals need to look to the future.

Lenon didn't miss a game last year but he did struggle through some muscle strains and other maladies.

Bradley had a history of injuries in Philadelphia, including a concussion and a torn ACL, but he stayed healthy last season. He just couldn't beat Lenon out.

Bradley's role on defense was limited last season. He played inside linebacker only when Lenon was forced out of the game. And he occasionally was used as a pass rusher off the edge.

His limited amount of production given his salary made him a target of fans' criticism. The Cardinals paid him a $5 million signing bonus, so they obviously didn't get their money's worth.

The two sides reached a compromise in the offseason. Bradley took a 50 percent pay-cut in salary, dropping from $5 million to $2.5 million.

The remaining three years of the deal weren't changed (salaries of $5 million, $5.5 million and $5.5 million). Those salaries aren't guaranteed, however.

This obviously is a critical year for Bradley, who turns 29 during the season. If he doesn't beat out Lenon, his future in Arizona is in doubt. And with Lenon turning 35, the Cardinals will have to search for a replacement.

There is not an heir apparent on the roster. Reggie Walker has shown signs of being able to do the job, but he's never had a consistent shot at it.

Quan Sturdivant, a sixth-round pick in 2011, spent last season on the practice squad. So he has a lot of ground to cover to prove he can fill the spot.

The ideal scenario for the Cardinals is that Lenon and Bradley stay healthy, and that Bradley at least closes the gap between the two. If Bradley grows in this defense, then he should at least be able to step in for Lenon in 2013. Lenon is in the last year of his contract and it's hard to see the team committing significant money to him in 2013.

But Lenon has defied odds before. This is his 10th season, not bad for a guy who once had to play in the XFL to keep his career alive.