TEMPE — While the team around him has stumbled through five straight losses, Arizona Cardinals inside linebacker Daryl Washington is emerging in his third season as one of the best defensive players in the NFL.
The former TCU star slipped to the second round of the 2010 draft because of concerns he wasn’t big enough to play the position.
“Obviously,” he said, “I think I’ve proved them wrong.”
Washington has eight sacks, 72 unassisted (out of 79 total) tackles, nine tackles for loss and two forced fumbles.
And he still has seven games to go.
“I look at the way he plays,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said, “the speed, how he can avoid guys, the big sudden change plays that he makes, and it’s very impressive.”
The Cardinals are looking awfully smart for locking the fleet 26-year-old up with a big contract before this season began. That six-year, $32.5 million deal — including a $2.5 million signing bonus and $10 million in other bonuses over the life of the deal — could be a bargain. He’s making $2.5 million this year.
Cardinals safety Kerry Rhodes has watched Washington’s fast-track maturing through the usual troubles of a rookie season, to considerable growth in 2011, to this year.
“This year he’s just a different animal,” Rhodes said. “He knows everything. He’s such a smart guy. He’s very instinctive, and he can make all the plays on the field. He could play safety. I think he understands football now. He’s not just an athlete running around — which he’s very good at — but he understands football now.”
Washington, 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, said he’s heard the “too small” talk for years.
“That’s always been motivating — to prove you wrong and continue to prove you wrong,” Washington said. “People ask me all the time, ‘What position do you play?’ and I tell them what position I play, and they kind of laugh and say, ‘You don’t play that position.’ So it’s more motivation than anything, just to continue to prove them wrong each and every game, each and every day.”
In 2010, the Cardinals traded up in the second round to get Washington, the 47th player chosen overall. Size was not a concern to the Cardinals, Whisenhunt said.
Washington’s skills fit perfectly into Arizona’s 3-4 defensive scheme, where players up front occupy the offense, freeing the inside linebacker to make the big plays.
“It’s the coaching staff and the players around me that allow me to do what I do on the field,” he said. “Without those guys, I wouldn’t be in this situation getting all the excitement. So I really need to credit the whole defense and (defensive coordinator) coach Ray Horton.”
Whisenhunt isn’t sure that other teams will sacrifice size for speed at inside linebacker, but it certainly works for the Cardinals.
“If you have that kind of guy then you have to have some guys up front that are unselfish, that do a good job of eating up some of those bigger linemen and give these guys the opportunity to make those plays in space,” Whisenhunt said. “He’s a good fit for our team and what we’re trying to do. Daryl, I think, would be good in any defense, but it’s a good fit for what we do.”
Washington was named to numerous so-called midseason All-Pro teams by various media outlets.
“It’s not surprising at all because it’s what I expect,” he said. “I expect to make plays and be a good player in this league, be one of those guys that they talk about for some time. So it’s not surprising. It’s much expected.”
He has no second thoughts about signing the new contract, even though he could well have made much more had he waited.
“I just wanted to make sure I knew where I was going to be for a long time,” Washington said.
He said he’s “on the verge” of reaching the numbers goals he set for himself before the season.
“Many times I mentioned I wanted 100-plus tackles, three interceptions, 10 sacks,” he said. “So far I’ve got 79, eight sacks, no interceptions, but two forced fumbles. So I’m on the verge with seven games to go. But I think the most important thing is accomplishing my goals as well as the team goals.”
And those team goals haven’t gone so well. After a 4-0 start, Arizona has lost five straight going into Sunday’s game at Atlanta, where the Cardinals are heavy underdogs.
“It’s frustrating,” Washington said. “When people say, ‘You’re doing great, you’re doing great individually.’ Well, yeah, I’m not surprised by that. But those individual goals don’t mean much if you’re not winning.”