It’s been five years since Dennis Gardeck beat the odds to make it in the NFL with the Cardinals despite being a relatively unknown from the University of Sioux Falls, a Division II school in South Dakota. Although he is an underdog no longer, you won’t ever find Gardeck patting himself on the back.
He’s too petrified the dream could end at any moment.
That’s one of the many qualities coach Kliff Kingsbury admires about the 6-foot, 232-pound outside linebacker and special teams star from tiny Lake in the Hills, Illinois.
“Yeah, it’s insane,” Kingsbury said of Gardeck’s personal rags-to-riches story. “And he’s one of those guys that he still doesn’t really like think that he’s made it. Like he thinks I’m going to cut him every day. He’ll barely talk to me.
“But that’s what drives him. He’s always on edge and always trying to get better. He has a great appreciation for what he’s done, but his story, where he came from and how he made it, it’s a great story.”
Gardeck wouldn’t say if he purposely tries to avoid Kingsbury out of fear of possibly being released. He just thinks if an NFL player starts getting comfortable, bad things can happen. Once you think you’ve made it and feel like your spot is secure, that’s when you’re at your most vulnerable.
“It’s always my No.1 goal just to make the 53-man roster,” he said. “I try not to ever get too far because it can be gone.”
Gardeck is stepping into his most important season yet with a chance to replace Chandler Jones as Arizona’s starting outside linebacker opposite Markus Golden. He isn’t the Cardinals’ only option as they also have Deon Kennard, Victor Dimukeje, Jessie Lemonier and three rookie draft picks – Cameron Thomas, Myjai Sanders and Jesse Luketa – competing for playing time.
But considering what Gardeck did in 2020 when Jones missed most of the season with a torn biceps, it would be foolish not to give him the first look at starter. He didn’t get his first defensive snap until Week 5, but he had seven sacks in just 92 total snaps before tearing his ACL in Week 15.
“You can’t replace Chandler Jones. He’s a Hall of Fame rusher,” Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said. “But as a group, we can. With more turns, Dennis can help us. He is obviously undersized, but he’s a pit bull and he’s powerful and he’s fast.”
Gardeck finished with a career-high 23 tackles in a part-time role last season in his return from knee surgery, but he produced zero sacks. A year healthier and a year stronger in a larger role should change that. Ask him if he’s ready and he’ll tell you how ready he is.
“I’ve been ready, so there hasn’t been no shift in the mindset since Chandler’s gone,” Gardeck said. “It’s always been when my number is called, be ready to go, so maybe that time is sooner but mentally, I’ve been in that frame of mind.
“Everybody wants to start. There’s nobody that comes into this league that I’ve met that is just content with special teams. I love special teams. I think it’s the most football part of football. But the goal is to always be a starter on your respective side of the ball.”
Kingsbury was asked if Gardeck has the inside track to the second starting job at outside ’backer and he wouldn’t come right out and say yes. Instead, he talked about how confident Gardeck seems to be in his surgically repaired knee and how fast he’s been moving around.
“We saw what he did the last time when Chan got hurt and he got his reps,” Kingsbury said. “We’re going to find ways to utilize him. I don’t know to what extent, but I like what I’ve seen this offseason and he’s always been productive when he’s played.”
When he’s not working on his own game, trying to make quicker decisions and fine-turning his pass-rushing techniques, Gardeck said he’s doing what he can to help bring the young outside linebackers up to speed. They’re all in this together, he points out, so there’s no room for selfishness.
“I’ve been in the room for a while now, so I know the culture, I know everything, so it’s bringing them up to speed,” he said. “It’s about having the best 11 on the field. We drafted these young guys to make an impact on the team, so as a veteran in the room, it’s time to bring them up to speed and to compete and to work with them.”
Gardeck’s rehab from ACL surgery went just like the way he plays – fast and furious. It enabled him to play in 14 games last season. It also taught him a lot about himself.
“I think the biggest thing I learned personally is I don’t like to guarantee,” he said. “When I first tore my ACL, I was going through that and I was like, ‘I guarantee I’m coming back stronger’ and this and that and I found that it’s so much more inspiring and it pushes me so much more but understanding that it might not. It might be done. It might be over.
“I think that’s why being on the 53 is my No.1 goal. It’s understanding the sense of urgency and that kind of pressure. I thrive under it. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned. It’s removing all guarantees and understanding there’s a possibility that this is done or there’s a possibility that I’m not the starter or there’s a possibility of whatever and you’ve got to get after it to make sure that you get it done.”
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