Note: I have been working on this article since Friday of last week. I wanted to wait to post it until after the MNF game so that I could include the info on how many snaps Simmons would get versus the Cowboys.
ESPN’s Louis Riddick recently said that his biggest concern in the pre-draft process for Isaiah Simmons was that he would be drafted by a team that wouldn’t know how to use him.
Two comments that were made after the Cardinals’ drafted Simmons with the #8 pick:
1—-Steve Keim and Vance Joseph immediately insisted: “we are going to play him at inside linebacker.”
2—-Isaiah Simmons, during one of his virtual interviews with the Arizona media after being selected by the Cardinals, when he was asked what kind of a player he fashions himself as, said that he sees himself as a” versatile defensive playmaker in the mold of Derwin James and Tyrann Mathieu.”
Those of us who watched the 2019 FBS Championship game (LSU 42 Clemson 25) saw first-hand how Isaiah Simmons thrived in the James/Mathieu mold (7 tackles, 1 sack, 2 pass breakups), from a variety of spots on the field. What we also saw was a slight drop in his production and instincts when, due to injuries, Clemson moved him to inside linebacker.
But—-let’s be clear—-the team that drafted Simmons was either going to move him around like Brett Venables did at Clemson—-or—-was going to train him to play a specific position.
I think it is fair to say that Isaiah Simmons, at his size (6-4, 238) and 4.39 speed ( is capable of playing well at a number of positions). For example, I have been imagining a scenario where Simmons is used as a Richard Sherman type CB opposite of Byron Murphy next year. I mean, right now, Simmons is arguably the fastest, most athletic, versatile and most physically imposing defensive player on the roster.
What Makes Some Fans Nervous About Simmons Playing ILB:
By now all Cardinals’ fans know of the scam job Daryl Washington performed with the Cardinals following his signing of a 4 year, $32M contract in 2012.
But, in truth, the Cardinals have not come close to getting the kind of production at WILB that they got when Washington was manning the position.
Steve Keim has used 3 1st round picks to try to fill the void left by Washington’s departure: S Deone Buchannon (#27 pick 2014), OLB/DE Haason Reddick (#13 pick 2017) and S/LB/CB Isaiah Simmons (#8 pick 2020)—-notice these picks came 3 years apart and two of these three players never played ILB in college—-and the third excelled mostly in a hybrid OLB/S role—-the very role that Simmons himself most identifies with.
What the Cardinals should have learned by now:
1—it’s a good idea to draft ILBs who have years of playing the position because of understanding the reads, the fill and drop instincts and the downhill tackling ability to meet the RB in the hole. Vance Joseph echoed this idea when he moved Haason Reddick to OLB last season after it became crystal clear (after 3 years) that ILB was not Reddick’s natural position.
2—-playing ILB in the NFL takes quite a physical and mental toll on the player. Deone Buchannon had some initial success as a rookie at WILB, but he could not withstand the physical grind and spent the next few years trying to battle through an array of injuries. In Haason Reddick’s case, from the get-go, the mental grind of learning a position he had never played and from not having the “feel” or primal instincts it takes to make good, quick, aggressive decisions, tormented Reddick.
3—-while fast, 3 down ILBers are in vogue in today’s NFL, playing a steady number of snaps in the box requires NFL ILBs to bulk up in order to withstand the weekly physical pounding they take in the games. Look for example, how Brian Urlacher’s changed his body type when he assimilated into the ILB role in Chicago.
The Apparent Panacea of the De’Vondre Campbell Signing:
For the first time since the days when Daryl Washington was actually on the field, it appears the Cardinals have found the right kind of athlete and playmaker at WILB. Steve Keim and the coaches have said that De’Vondre Campbell was their top priority 2020 UFA.
Just last week, Ron Wolfley on The Doug and Wolf Show was making a superb case for Campbell as the Cardinals’ defensive MVP thus far (other than Budda Baker, of course). Suddenly the defense is no longer being torn apart by wide open TEs—-and look at how just that in itself has allowed the defense to show drastic improvement in 3rd down conversion percentages (#7 in NFL) and in points scored (#2 in NFL).
Steve Keim’s Remarks About Simmons Last Week on Doug and Wolf:
1—-”I just want to see him on the field.”
2—-”But it can stunt a player’s growth when you move him around.”
3—-”He would have to be significantly better than the players we already have for him to get snaps at other positions.”
4—-”We are going to put the best 11 players on the field.”
5—-”He is the future at ILB.”
6—-”I still think he will be a fine player.”
Questions About Keim’s Remarks:
1—-Why then did the coaches start Isaiah Simmons in Game 1 at OLB?
2—-Wouldn’t a quick hook in Game 1 and a 5 game exile to the bench do quite a bit to “stunt the player’s growth”?
3—-How can an elite, multi-talented athlete like Isaiah Simmons not be one of the best 11 players on the field? How can he not be significantly better than some of the players you have been going snaps to—-the most obvious of which was Curtis Riley, less than 2 weeks after signing him, while you’ve had Simmons on the roster since April?
4—-If Isaiah Simmons is the future at ILB, does that mean after finally finding a true fit at WILB in De’Vondre Campbell, that Campbell will be one-and-done in Arizona?
Note: Wolf agrees with Keim in saying it is wisest to keep grooming Simmons at WILB—-thus, I asked Wolf:
It's not good for Simmons to sit behind anybody but it's better than letting him learn by fire. DVC doesn't have to be a one and done. Isaiah Simmons needs to vastly improve. Reddick got moved from his weakside inside linebacker position to the edge his rookie year.— Ron Wolfley (@wolf987FM) October 16, 2020
If Wolf is correct and “DVC doesn’t have to be one and done”—-would re-signing Campbell mean that Simmons will another year behind DVC so that he can “vastly improve”?
But—-as i was trying to say in my tweet to Wolf, wasn’t it a mistake to play Reddick at ILB in the first place?
I hear you, Wolf. What is most frustrating is how versatile Simmons is---and---to be frank, he played his best at Clemson as a hybrid S/edge/slot and was not nearly as effective at ILB, as evidenced in the loss to LSU. Will Simmons be strike 3 at WILB behind Deone and Haason?— Walter B J Mitchell (@WBJMItch) October 16, 2020
When Wolf says that “Simmons needs to vastly improve” and Steve Keim says, “I still think he (Simmons) will be a fine player” while implying that Simmons is not significantly better than players at other positions and that therefore Simmons is not currently one of “the best 11 players on the field”—-the overwhelming question points directly back to Louis Riddick’s caveat—-isn’t the biggest concern about Simmons, which has nothing to do with his obvious talents, whether the team that drafts him knows how to use him?
Vance Joseph laid out his plans at OLB for the MNF game by saying that Devon Kennard and Haason Reddick will start and that Dennis Gardeck will back both of them up. Right in line with what Steve Keim was saying, there was no mention of Simmons, even though Kennard (calf) and Gardeck (foot) had been limited in practice—-and Kylie Fitts (hamstring) did not practice all week—-Fitts was inactive for the game as Reggie Walker was called up from the practice squad to take Fitts’ place.
However, it’s not just the GM and the DC who are questioning Simmons’ readiness, his teammate Patrick Peterson, last week in his weekly podcast, All Things Covered with Brian McFadden, said,:
“Him not having an offseason to really find out what position would be good for him versus doing the virtual meetings. They really didn’t expect DC (De’Vondre Campbell) to have the season that he’s having. It’s hard to put that type of guy on the bench when necessarily your first rounder is not technically ready.”
So, because the Cardinals had a big 4th quarter lead in the MNF game versus the Cowboys, we got a first chance to see Isaiah Simmons get some extensive play (21) at ILB. The results were very encouraging. In fact, Simmons looked sharp. He registered 4 tackles (2 solo) and was targeted 2 times in pass coverage, giving up 6 yards on one and breaking up the other.
Week 6 PFF Game Grades:
Hicks (86 snaps): 62.5
Campbell (72 snaps): 60.1
Simmons (21 snaps): 82.8
Of course, this is a small sample size, and Isaiah was playing during scrub time, albeit with the Cowboys’ 1st Team offense still in the game until their last series. But, what Isaiah’s performance appears to indicate is that he certainly is making strides in his development as an NFL ILB.
The Future at ILB:
If Isaiah Simmons is one of the starters in 2021 (the coaches are not going to have him be a backup another season, right?), then do the Cardinals re-sign De’Vondre Campbell (28) and let go of Jordan Hicks (30) and save $22M in his last two years of salary, while taking a dead cap hit of $6M? Hick’s deal was structured so that a possible out year would be in 2021.
By the way, Steve Keim structured Campbell’s 2020 contract (which expires on the 5th day of the new NFL year following the Super Bowl), in such a way that $4M of his signing bonus was deferred to the 2021 cap.
Or—-do the Cardinals keep Jordan Hicks and let Campbell hit free agency?
Or—-do the Cardinals let Hicks go and let Campbell hit free agency and then pursue one of the top UFA LBs like Lavonte David (TB—81.8, 31) or Jarrad Davis (DET—-81.1, 26) or one of the top LBs in the 2021 NFL Draft such as Micah Parsons (6-3, 244, Penn St.) or Dylan Moses (6’2, 240, Alabama)?
Questions for Cardinals’ fans:
- Do you feel that Isaiah Simmons’ best fit in Vance Joseph’s defense is at ILB? If not, what position do you feel he should play?
- If Isaiah is a starter at ILB next year, what ILB would you most like to see playing next to him?
- Do you think Vance Joseph should give Simmons more snaps each game this year?
- I do not think that ILB is the most natural position for Simmons. As I said before, I would love to see him at CB and with Byron Murphy, Budda Baker and Jalen Thompson for, their own Legion of Ba-Boom. I like Simmons at OLB too. I think he is most outstanding playing in space, not from out of a crowded box.
- Lavonte David would be an amazing addition, but it’s not likely that the Bucs will let him test free agency. Therefore, I would prefer to keep Campbell over Hicks. I love the idea of both ILBs being superb cover guys who are natural 3 down LBs.
- Yes. Give Simmons more snaps each week. At the very least, he should play quite frequently at nickel LB, a role he appears to be tailor made for.