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It’s time for a change at inside linebacker

Jordan Hicks and De’Vondre Campbell were exposed against the Miami Dolphins.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Arizona Cardinals Billy Hardiman-USA TODAY Sports

Entering the 2020 season, the position of inside linebacker on the Arizona Cardinal defense appeared to be a strength.

After a troubling 2019 season in which there was a carousel of players attempting to man the position next to the then steady Jordan Hicks, the offseason additions of De’Vondre Campbell and Isaiah Simmons were suppose to inject much needed athleticism at inside linebacker.

Early in the season that narrative appeared to be supported as both Hicks and Campbell took advantage of underwhelming opponents offensively. The Cardinal defense shined against the likes of Jimmy Garoppolo and Dwayne Haskins, yet both signal callers would end up being benched by their teams in the coming weeks.

It wasn’t until unfavorable matchups against the Matthew Stafford led Detroit Lions and the innovative Carolina Panthers that problems began to arise. Specifically with Jordan Hicks, who after a very strong 2019, has looked increasingly slow in space to the point where he has become a liability in many instances.

Hicks was one of Steve Keim’s shrewdest pickups during the 2019 off season, in which the former Philadelphia Eagle inked a four year deal with the Redbirds. Hicks would go on to have a borderline Pro Bowl level 2019 campaign that saw him secure 3 INTs, 1.5 sacks 2 FF and most importantly stay active and available for all 16 games.

Overcoming injuries has been Hicks’ biggest obstacle during his six year NFL career, but thankfully that hasn’t become a talking point while in Arizona.

HIs play, on the other hand, has become increasingly worrisome for someone who is suppose to be the field general for the Arizona Cardinal front seven. Unlike last season, Hicks appears to be incapable of making impactful plays for this defense.

That may sound harsh, but he consistently remains out of position to change games like he did in 2019. And when he’s in position, like against Andy Dalton and the Dallas Cowboys, he’s unable to secure the neccesary play needed to change the game.

For some perspective, Hicks currently ranks 45th all among all NFL ILB via Pro Football Focus.

For an Arizona Cardinal defense that has shown some improvement over the ghastly unit that we saw in 2019, Hick’s decline in play is one of the more jarring developments. Just in the last two games alone, Hicks was grossly exposed against the likes of both Russell Wilson and rookie Tua Tagovailoa to the point where it was difficult to watch.

Specifically in the Seattle game, the Cardinal defense improved once Hicks was taken off the field (for a brief injury) in favor of journeymen Tanner Vallejo. The former sixth round pick had a critical stop on third down that would send the game to overtime where the Cardinals would eventually come out victorious.

Again, an injection of athleticism and playmaking ability is greatly needed from this group and they aren’t getting that from their current starters.

That brings us to De’Vondre Campbell, who was a reasonably acquired veteran this past off season on a team friendly one year deal. The Atlanta Falcons opted to let the productive former fourth round pick walk and Steve Keim gladly scooped him up as an insurance policy prior to the draft.

That insurance policy has paid dividends (to some extent) but it’s time for the Cardinals to rethink their “coverage”.

Believe it or not, Campbell has a worse PFF rating as compared to Hicks, coming in at 56th overall among ILB. While he has been more disruptive near the LOS, his coverage grade of 55.2 does not speak to what the Cardinals had hoped he would bring to the table back in April. Campbell has recently been exposed by more athletic tight ends and running backs, similar to that of Hicks, looking a step slower to make the necessary plays.

The bottomline line is neither Campbell or Hicks are athletic enough, right now, to help aid an increasingly vulnerable Cardinal defense. Their defensive line remains muddled due to injuries, and their cornerback situation is quickly becoming dire.

If only there was a bright young rookie that could be inserted for a much needed spark. A rookie that was herald at the collegiate level and could serve as a lightening rod for a defense desperately craving turnovers.

In admittedly limited snaps, rookie LB Isaiah Simmons has registered a far higher PFF grade on the season (61.8) than both Hicks (52.4) or Campbell (48).

In fact, if you subtract his rough week one outing against the San Francisco 49ers, his grade averages out to 69 overall. On Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, Simmons flashed early and often. His ability to smoothly tackle in space is greatly lacking from his peers at ILB, as his athleticism jumps off the screen. While he remains a work in progress at rushing the quarterback (45.9), he’s more than capable of handling a three down role that includes positive marks in tackling (81.7) and coverage (67.3).

There is no assurance that the Arizona Cardinals are going to keep either Jordan Hicks or De’Vondre Campbell entering 2021.

However, there’s an almost certainty that Isaiah Simmons will be on the roster come next season so why not prime him for that critical role now? What is the point of trotting out a couple aging veterans who spend far too much time on the ground?

There is no more excuse making that can be done by the likes of the local Cardinal officials claiming that Simmons would be less effective than both Hicks or Campbell. Eight weeks into the season, with critical offensive matchups on deck, we now have enough evidence that points to Simmons being the best option.

It may only take this weekend’s incredibly difficult matchup against playmaking QB Josh Allen for the Cardinal coaching staff to finally make the change. If that does not happen, however, it may be up to Steve Keim to force the hand of Defensive Coordinator Vance Joseph in a last ditch attempt to save his job.

The Cardinals are a playoff team based squarely on their offense led by MVP candidate Kyler Murray. Their defense, as we enter the half way mark of the season, needs an MVP injection of their own, specifically in the front seven.

It’s time for Isaiah Simmons to play and any hesitation by the team could prove dangerously critical to their playoff aspirations.