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Haason Reddick
Haason Reddick's in a good place, now
After struggling through a frustrating position switch in Arizona, he's flourishing as a pass-rusher for the Panthers.
By Darin Gantt Nov 13, 2021

CHARLOTTE — Haason Reddick can admit it now — it stung when he first heard those words, which sat like the bookends of his career with the Cardinals.

Bust.

Fluke.

But the 27-year-old is in a better place now, and that's not just in reference to being back on the East Coast after four years in Arizona, during which he only hinted at realizing the potential the Cardinals saw when they chose him 13th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft.

"It was very hard," Reddick said quietly, because that's how he says things. "Not even the expectations from everybody else, but from yourself. Knowing that you're a first-round pick, knowing you have to live up to that.

"The expectations I had on myself were a lot of pressure."

The ones from outside were not inconsiderable.

When he was with the Cardinals, Reddick swung wildly from miscast to effective-yet-underappreciated. When you're a first-round pick that came to the team when fans had their hearts set on a quarterback, they're hard labels to shake. But as he has so often in his football life, he pushed through.

"I knew I just needed the opportunity to get back to what I do best," Reddick said. "I always bet on myself."

That's what he did this season, by signing a one-year deal with the Panthers, a team that was going to use him the way he's best used. His 8.5 sacks and 12 tackles for a loss through nine games suggest it was a good decision. But getting back with his college coaches (who watched him go from walk-on to star), was just part of the process.

For Reddick, it was about believing that his particular set of skills could make him one of the best, even if it took others too long to realize them.

After a standout career at Temple, which included 10.5 sacks his senior year playing for head coach Matt Rhule and defensive coordinator Phil Snow, Reddick began to get lost.

When you show up at the Scouting Combine at 6-foot-1 and 237 pounds, and run a 4.52-second 40 with an 11-foot, 1-inch broad jump, the numbers don't scream pass-rusher. He was linebacker-sized, so people thought that was what he was going to be.

"Yeah, because of his physical attributes," Panthers run game coordinator Al Holcomb said. "His size, his speed, his ability to cover, and play in space. When you looked at him at the Senior Bowl and Combine, and you think wow, he's an ideal inside 'backer in the NFL.

"Very, very, very, good skill set for the position, better than most."

Haason Reddick

The only problem was, Reddick wasn't really a linebacker. That didn't stop the Cardinals from trying to beat a square peg into a round hole, because the numbers suggested Reddick was something he was not.

That started a bit of a spiral, as he struggled with the intricacies of learning a new position, with far more demands.

"Very difficult, man," Reddick said. "Just a different world. You've got to look at different things, you've got more keys, it's a hard process to go from being on the line, reading one key, to having to read three or more.

"I don't think people understood. To not only be coming in and asked to play a position I had never played, one of the hardest positions in the game. It's on par with playing quarterback. And on top of that, three coaching changes in my first three years. Man, that's difficult to have to learn new defenses, learn new techniques. It's hard."

Holcomb saw firsthand how hard it was. After Reddick's rookie season, Holcomb came in as defensive coordinator under head coach Steve Wilks in 2018. They were the second of three coaching changes in Reddick's first three years. And they continued the experiment.

"When I got there, I tried to continue to develop him as an inside backer, and he actually had a pretty good season," Holcomb said. "He let me know a month or so ago, 'I had my best season as an inside 'backer when you were the coordinator.'

"The one thing I will say, his football IQ is extremely, extremely high. And some of the things that maybe he couldn't connect the dots on three years ago, he connects them all now. It all makes sense to him. . . . He doesn't have that deer in headlights look anymore. He understands the speed of the game, he studies the opponent, he's very detailed in terms of his preparation and work, and he's really done a nice job."

Now he does. It didn't necessarily look that way when he was with the Cardinals. Holcomb described Reddick's efforts to learn to play the traditional inside linebacker as intense. He'd show up at the facility at 6 a.m. to get extra film study and classroom work in, as he tried to catch up to people who had been playing the position their entire college careers.

"I was just trying to do my best, at the end of the day. It wasn't really for me; it wasn't natural to me," Reddick said. "I just hadn't done it before. So I never felt like it was for me; I was just always trying my best.

"I definitely worked hard on it, put in a lot of hours before, during, and after work was over to try to get better at it, but it's just hard to do at the highest level of the game."

Trying to learn a new language on the fly was difficult, as was dealing with the pressure.

The 2017 NFL Draft was filled with stars, and impact players. The Panthers took Christian McCaffrey eighth overall. The Cardinals were considering a quarterback but saw the Chiefs and Texans trade up to take Patrick Mahomes and DeShaun Watson at 10th and 12th. So at 13, Reddick's talent made him stand out on the board.

Not playing to the immediate dividends of those chosen around him became a burden, and it showed.

"I think it's natural when you're a first-round draft choice and not playing all the time or a little inconsistent, it does get to you, especially when you're trying to figure it all out," Holcomb said.

"Early on in his career, there was some frustration because he wanted to be great. And he knew he had the physical tools to do those things; it was just going to take some time."

After three seasons, he had had enough, and asked to be allowed to hunt, the way he did at Temple. The results were immediate. He flourished last year as a pass-rusher, initially playing opposite Chandler Jones and then Markus Golden.

Reddick had 12.5 sacks and six forced fumbles, numbers that opened eyes, but made people wonder whether it was simply a contract-year aberration. The Cardinals had declined to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie deal prior to the 2020 season, so it was reasonable to wonder if they thought he was capable of such things, or whether anyone else thought so.

Haason Reddick

"I was always confident in myself; I knew that when I got back on the edge I'd be fine," he said. "Last year, they called it a fluke. This year, I'm doing better than I was at this point last year."

Reddick has been one of the keys to the Panthers' second-ranked defense for a lot of reasons, beginning with his play on the field.

Despite his stature — he's considerably smaller than a lot of edge rushers — he's able to win for a few particular reasons.

One, being smaller allows him to capitalize on leverage. Coupled with his speed, that's a difficult matchup for offensive tackles. But he's also strong enough to hold up with linemen, and Holcomb said, "He's pound-for-pound one of the strongest guys on the team."

"Most definitely," Reddick agreed with a laugh. "I've always been strong, always been fast. I think that's what overwhelms a lot of people too; they're not expecting it. A lot of guys think, 'Oh, he's a little guy,' and that they can just overpower me, until I get these hands on them, and it ain't what you thought."

And now that he understands the position he's playing better, he's able to react quicker, and make those physical gifts count.

"Just his overall maturity as a football player," Holcomb said of the difference between the 2018 Reddick he coached and the version he has now. "He understands coverage concepts, he understands run fits, he understands the defense overall and how things fit together. When he first came into the league, he was just concerned about getting lined up, what his assignment was, where he needed to be and where he needed to go. Now, he kind of understands what's going on around him, and the other positions on the field, and how it impacts him, and how he can impact other positions as well.

"He just understands. When we're watching tape of opponents, he'll notice something not related to his position. He'll say, 'Al, rewind that, why does the safety do that? He should be right there,' stuff like that."

And as Reedick grows in his understanding of his role, he's doing more than just making plays.

He's becoming a leader around here, with the quiet but steady approach that defined his career. Learning to overcome struggles lends gravity to a person. He suffered a broken femur and a torn meniscus in high school, so there was only four games of tape for college coaches to scout. That's why he had to walk on at Temple, the first time people didn't realize his potential. Now, he's with the people who do, and they're putting him in a position to succeed.

He's also one of the "brand" guys Rhule likes to hold up as a model, because he does his job daily, he does it well, and he doesn't stray outside his job description. Last week after a dispiriting loss to the Patriots, Reddick "respectfully" asked reporters not to ask him about the offense's struggles. He can't control the offense, didn't want to speak on them, because that would have suggested a divide.

"It's easy to sit on the other side of the room and say, 'Those guys should be doing this,'" Rhule said. "Haason's leading by example, saying I don't want talk about things I'm not involved with, I don't want to talk about execution in the passing game, or should we run the ball more.

"Haason's job is to go out there and set the edge and make tackles and get sacks. And he's leading by example in doing that."

It takes discipline to work that way. It also takes the emotional security to trust in your ability.

Reddick said that three years into his career, he made a conscious choice to eliminate the negative talk from his life. He knew why he wasn't succeeding better than the people who were talking about it. So he stopped worrying about the talk. It's easier to say that than to do it, especially in a world in which the hate is only as far away as the phone in your pocket.

You don't push through two years of injuries in high school if you can't handle it. You can't go from being a walk-on to a first-rounder without something inside you. And you can't go from being considered an underachiever to a star without some of the same traits.

"He's a man that really has had to earn and work for everything he's attained," Holcomb said. "Whether it was him getting injured, not getting lot of offers, a year or two later people were saying wasn't worth the draft choice. There were always doubters and haters out there.

"But his intestinal fortitude has allowed him to get to where he is today. He's a determined person. He's driven. He's motivated. He wants to win, and he knows what he's capable of. It's not that he's trying to prove it to anyone else, but I know he has great satisfaction in what he's accomplishing now."

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