Originally created 12/31/98

Cardinals safety cements position



TEMPE, Ariz. -- Kwamie Lassiter's stock is rising big time.

A backup until last month, the four-year veteran looms as one of the top safeties who will be unrestricted free agents in February. The Arizona Cardinals want to re-sign him, but doing that will be more expensive than it was a week ago.

"Last week didn't hurt at all," Lassiter said about his four-interception game in a 16-13 victory over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday that clinched Arizona's first playoff berth since 1982.

He tied a record held by 16 others and finished the regular season with eight interceptions -- tops in the NFC and more than any other safety.

But Lassiter doesn't expect to embarrass Troy Aikman in a first-round game Saturday in Dallas the way he victimized Craig Whelihan of the Chargers.

"Aikman is a smart quarterback," Lassiter said. "Very smart. He knows where you are, and he doesn't throw many interceptions. But if I can be around the ball, I hope that I can make some plays."

Lassiter finished ninth on the Cardinals with 68 tackles, forced two fumbles and had a team-high 28 tackles on special teams.

Not bad for someone who lost the starting job at free safety to a rookie and spent the first 11 games as a nickel back and on special teams. Lassiter never complained about playing behind Pat Tillman, a seventh-round draft pick.

"He was a tremendous competitor and contributor on special teams, and when he came in as a starter, you saw what he did," defensive coordinator Dave McGinnis said. "There are guys that get paid to play, and then there are professionals. Kwamie is a professional."

Lassiter killed Washington's last possession with an interception in a 45-42 Arizona victory Nov. 22, ending a string of six consecutive touchdown drives by the Redskins. That's when McGinnis decided Lassiter belonged in the defensive lineup full time.

Lassiter would have started in 1995 as a rookie under Buddy Ryan, but he broke his left ankle the week Ryan named him to start.

The next year, Lassiter had a new coaching staff to impress.

It took another year before he was a regular, even on nickel defenses. After safety Brent Alexander left to play for Carolina during the offseason this year, the Cardinals signed Lassiter to a $397,000, one-year contract.

Now they have to worry about getting him back. McGinnis said Lassiter and Tillman create a problem lots of teams would like to have.

"All the good teams I've been associated with have competition at every position," he said. "That's been our goal, to build up not only the front line but the depth."

Bob Ferguson, Arizona's vice president of player personnel, ranks pending free agents like wide receiver Rob Moore and linebacker Jamir Miller ahead of Lassiter on the priority list for re-signing players.

"But all of a sudden, he's become a guy that we have to address," Ferguson said. "I think all of a sudden his ideas maybe have changed a little bit too, but that's free agency. A couple of games don't make a career, though."

Lassiter, still immersed in preparations for the playoff game, allowed that he has thought about the future.

"If it's a win-win situation with the Cardinals, sure. If not, then I've got to do what I've got to do. I've got to take care of my family," he said.