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Keim and Joseph Wasting Simmons

NFL: Washington Football Team at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The truth appears to be that the Arizona Cardinals never expected that Clemson All-American S/LB Isaiah Simmons to fall into their laps with the #8 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

In free agency, GM Steve Keim signed two LBs in SAM OLB Devon Kennard (Lions) and WILB De’Vondre Campbell (Falcons) to join BANDIT OLB Chandler Jones and MIKE ILB Jordan Hicks as the 4 LBs of Vance Joseph’s 3-4 defense.

At safety, Steve Keim and Vance Joseph made it crystal clear during the off-season that they are sky high on FS Budda Baker and SS Jalen Thompson—-and with good reason.

Even though Steve Keim signed UFA DT Jordan Phillips (Bills) to a $10M a year contract, while signing DTs Jonathan Bullard and Trevon Coley for depth, the plan was to draft DT Derrick Brown. But, as we know, the Panthers beat the Cardinals to the punch by taking Brown with the #7 pick.

From a need standpoint, ideally if one of the top ranked defenders other than Chase Young or Derrick Brown were to fall in the draft, the Cardinals would have preferred him to be CB Jeffrey Okudah. But, of course, the Lions selected Okudah with the #3 pick.

Coincidentally, both Okudah and Brown played significant starting roles in helping their teams win as underdogs versus the Cardinals in consecutive weeks—-

All the while—-during these two demoralizing losses for the Cardinals—-as Okudah and Brown were starting and getting 59 and 33 snaps respectively—-Isaiah Simmons, while watching a struggling defense from the sidelines was relegated to 10 and 9 snaps in those games.

The Cardinals are wasting perhaps the most uniquely talented defensive playmaker to come down the pike in years.

The first mistake the Cardinals made right from the moment they picked Simmons was to pigeonhole him as an ILB. Look at the tweet above from Clemson Recruiting News. Any of us who watched Simmons’ high-profile performance in Clemson’s 42-25 loss to QB Joe Burrow and the LSU Tigers in the 2020 FBS National Championship game, saw that Simmons was at his very best when being used in space as a combo S/CB/OLB—-because when Clemson moved him down to ILB in that game, his playmaking waned significantly.

The Cardinals have freely admitted that their number one defensive target in free agency was WILB De’Vondre Campbell. While they were able to sign him to a one year $8.5M ($6M base salary + $2.5M in incentives) contract, they were frustrated that they couldn’t get Campbell to agree to a long-term deal. Apparently, Campbell and his agent believe that he deserves top ILB money.

The top five highest paid ILBs this season are:

1-Bobby Wagner (SEA): $18M

2-C.J. Mosley (NYJ): $17M

3. Zach Cunningham (HOU): $14.5M

4. Deion Jones (ATL): $14.25M

5. Shaq Thompson (CAR): $13.6M

Verdict: (1) De’Vondre Campbell does not belong in this company; (2) Other than Bobby Wagner and perhaps C.J. Mosley (when healthy) these ILBs are grossly overpaid. 2020 PFF grades: Wagner (73.8), Mosley (IR), Cunningham (31.7), Jones (58.9), Thompson (63.0).

De’Vondre Campbell has been a pleasant surprise in pass coverage (64.3 grade)—-giving up 14 catches on 21 targets for 100 yards (7.1 ave.). The problem is, he has been a liability in run support (46.0), which is why his overall grade is a pedestrian 56.0.

Obviously, the Cardinals figured that they could groom Isaiah Simmons to replace De’Vondre Campbell as the starting WILB in 2021. Kind of like the way the Cardinals figured they could groom T D.J. Humphries to replace starting RT Bobby Massie in D.J.’s 2nd year.

Humphries, the #24 pick of the 2015 NFL Draft never saw the field as a rookie. In 4 games, Isaiah Simmons has been on the field for a paltry 44 snaps.

The problem is: Isaiah Simmons is a top 10 pick and is the most versatile defensive player in his class.

Even though the Cardinals have said repeatedly that they are having Simmons learn the WILB position, they were having him participate in OLB and DB drills throughout training camp. That was good to see.

A decision was made come Week 1 versus the 49ers to start Simmons at SAM OLB . In early action, Simmons was right there to make a tackle on TE George Kittle, but he made a rookie mistake of horse tackling the All ProTE.

By the way, since then, in his limited action, Simmons has made 5 tackles and hasn’t missed one. His PFF tackling grade is an impressive 77.1, ranking him 3rd on the team of players playing more than 40 defense snaps.

The play in Week 1 that got Simmons his quick hook was when, as a nickel ILB, he was assigned to cover RB Raheem Mostert who ran the 49ers’ pet RB circle/out option route from out of the backfield—-you know, the very same play that cost the Cardinals the win at Santa Clara in 2019 when Vance Joseph called the delayed SS blitz for Budda Baker and had Chandler Jones try to defend the circle/out pass with a vacated middle of the field.

The result was something similar. Simmons over-bit on the coverage, thinking that Mostert was going to run the out route, and so Mostert crossed Simmons’ face to shake wide open and was off to the races, as FS Chris Banjo got a late jump on the play and took too shallow of a pursuit angle—-and it also didn’t help that CB Patrick Peterson didn’t react to the play quicker because he could have been in a position to tackle Mostert. It was the perfect storm. How many times does a RB catch a 5 yard pass and turn it into a 76 yard TD.

Simmons made the mistake of over-committing to the out pass option—-but, watch him run his ass off to try to catch Mostert. That tells you something not only about Simmons’ speed, but his character. Other Cardinals’ defenders quit on the play.

Should this play have warranted a quick hook that would last a whole 4 games?

No way.

It’s very correctable—-and is a great teaching moment.

The rookie had zero help—-you might as well give Banjo and Peterson the hook too.

Here’s the troubling thing, though—-by deciding to start Simmons on Week 1, the coaches should have thought the decision through well enough to acknowledge that if Simmons makes some rookie mistakes, as NFL rookies are wont to do, then they are making the commitment to stick with him—-knowing fully well what a quick hook could do to affect Simmons’ confidence and morale.

I believe 100% that the Cardinals would be a better defense now had they kept starting Simmons. Yes, they have been getting good play at times from Haason Reddick at SAM OLB, but Simmons is the better athlete and should be the present and future at the position. Haason Reddick can come in sub packages for Jordan Hicks and join Simmons and Campbell as nickel LBers—-where it is wisest to play the most talented cover, spy and blitz guys—-which in turn could keep Jordan Hicks fresh for the snaps at MIKE in the 34 base defense.

As bad as it was to bench Simmons for games 2 and 3—-what happened in Game 4 is a full-fledged debacle.

With a golden opportunity to put Simmons in a position to make athletic plays as a safety, in tandem with Deionte Thompson, Vance Joseph and his coaches decided it was better to start Curtis Riley at SS instead.

Joseph and his staff have had the privilege of working with a uniquely versatile athlete like Isaiah Simmons for over 6 months—-and a street free agent only having more than a handful of practices over two weeks, who has a reputation of being an effective deep cover safety in sub packages, but a liability as a tackler—-gets the starting nod over Simmons.

It was clear from the get-go when Jospeh was having Curtis Riley play a number of snaps in the box—-not only does Jospeh not understand the type of athlete he has in Isaiah Simmons, he doesn’t understand Curtis Riley’s limitations as a player. Watch this play—-and from the way in which OLB Haason Reddick is squared up in an effort to defend a run in the inside C gap, it would mean that Curtis Riley has the contain on this play.

As you watch this play—-ask yourself—-what player would you want in this position and role—-Curtis Riley? Or Isaiah freaking Simmons?

It could be that Reddick made a mistake by pinching inside and by therefore losing contain, but regardless, so much of defensive football requires players to make good tackles in the open field.

Making good tackles in the open field is Isaiah Simmons’ forte—-which is why he is an elite player in space, and not as much when hemmed in as an inside LB.

The blame here should not be on Curtis Riley—-it should be on the GM and coaches for not taking full advantage of their personnel.

Even worse and more egregious was Joseph’s keeping Simmons in bubble wrap in the 4th quarter when there were ample opportunities to play him. It was as if Joseph didn't want to be called out after the game for his poor personnel decision, if Simmons was making plays late in the game.

Let this ruminate with you for a minute: in 2 games Curtis Riley was given 72 snaps, while the #8 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft was given 44.

The one role that Joseph appeared to give Simmons in this game was to line up as an inside LB and the right before the snap, sprint back to the middle safety position. The good news is that Joseph obviously picked up on this while watching how Clemson DC Brent Venables employed Simmons’ talents—-but the bad news is how Joseph has neglected seeing the other impactful ways that Venables used the 2019 unanimous 1st team All-American. Here, do yourself a favor and remind yourself of what kind of playmaker Isaiah Simmons is.

Some fans have argued that there was no way Joseph could get Simmons ready to play safety in one week. But that argument is inherently flawed. First of all, in 2019, Simmons played 232 snaps at safety, switching between free safety (132 snaps) and strong safety (100 snaps), plus he has 262 snaps at slot CB. Secondly, Brent Venables drew up a different, personalized, highly detailed game plans for Simmons for every game with Venables calling Simmons the “fastest learner I have ever coached.”

Heck, I could make the argument that right now Isaiah Simmons has the most upside of any CB on the current Cardinals’ roster. But, I will save the support for that claim for another day.

The decision to start and stick with Curtis Riley at safety over an elite athlete and playmaker like Isaiah Simmons is conspicuously obtuse. There is no other way to explain it. And I say “stick with” because it was so plainly obvious that Riley was struggling big-time out there—-and yet, the ironies of ironies is—-Riley doesn’t get the quick hook that Joseph yanked Simmons off the field with. It makes absolutely no sense. All of it is plainly and painfully absurd.

Some fans are arguing that Joseph isn’t playing Simmons because he is fearing losing his job and can’t afford to have young players making mistakes. First of all, this theory assumes that Simmons would be a liability, when the odds are that he will start looking like the baller he was at Clemson. Secondly, Joseph has a much larger problem on his hands in that 3 of his 4 veteran captains are underachieving : Chandler Jones, Patrick Peterson and Jordan Hicks. Just look at their PFF tackling grades: Jones—-28.4; Peterson—-29.6; Hicks—-59.2.

This is where the team’s GM should step in and demand that the situation with isaiah Simmons be rectified. It’s getting so tiring of seeing Steve Keim use 1st round picks on defensive players that his own DCs either don’t know how to properly motivate—-or properly position—-or properly understand the players’ strengths. Deone Buchanon and Haason Reddick were not NFL ILBers in a base 34 defense and were never suited for the role (7 years wasted on those experiments). Robert Nkemdiche was not an NFL ready prospect and never was (2 years wasted on that gamble).

When Steve Keim doubled down on Vance Joseph, I felt compelled to make the comment at the time and I am sticking to it—-if Joseph fails miserably again, as he did in year one as DC, then both Jospeh and Keim should go.

The most important decision that Steve Keim has HAD to make in order to give Kliff Kingsbury the best chance to succeed as an NFL head coach—-was getting Kingsbury a talented and dependable DC. As all keen college football fans know, Kingsbury’s offensive genius at Texas Tech was undone by his team’s failures on defense—-and now this could be the exact scenario in the NFL, like “deja vu allover again” (Yogi Berra).

BA hired Todd Bowles and promoted James Bettcher (which a more experienced GM would have vetoed, especially with top level DCs like Wade Phillips, Dick LeBeau and Jim Schwartz all available at the time and having a championship caliber team at that time).

Since BA stepped down, Steve Keim has hired the Steve Wilks/Al Holcomb combo and Vance Jospeh as DC and hired Mike McCoy as OC. The Mike McCoy hire has a lot to do with why Steve Wilks was one and done as a HC. Wilks had his own share of issues, but he certainly didn't get the right kind of help on the other side of the ball.

Therefore, if Steve Keim can’t seem to be able to put the team’s defense in the most talented and capable hands, then he is the wrong GM for an offensive-minded head coach like Kliff Kingsbury—-regardless of all of the good decisions Keim has made in other areas.

if Keim can’t get this decision right, then Kingsbury has no chance.

And, if Kingsbury has no chance, where does that leave Keim anyway?

The ultimate irony is—-the one defensive player most like to save everyone’s job and peace of mind is the player who just so happened to drop smack dab into the Cardinals’ laps at #8, All American, 2019 Butkus Award winner, Isaiah Simmons.