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How Dare the Cardinals Start a Rookie MIKE?

NFL: NFL Draft Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, when the news arrived that the Cardinals have given Jordan Hicks and his agent the permission to find a trade partner, the reaction amongst many Cardinals’ fans on Twitter was one of pure outrage.

  • 1-How dare the Cardinals start Zaven Collins at MIKE from day one?
  • 2-Why didn't Steve Keim and Kliff Kingsbury at least make it a competition between Jordan Hicks and Zaven Collins?
  • 3-How can the Cardinals’ afford to let Hicks go when they are so thin depth-wise at inside linebacker?
  • 4-How can the Cardinals do one of the stupidest things imaginable by letting Hicks find a trade partner?

Well, here’s why:

  • 1-How dare the Cardinals start Zaven Collins at MIKE from day one?

Have a loook at the list of Butkus Award winners, Bronko Nagurski Award winners and Chuck Bednarik Award winners since 2017:

Butkus (top LB in college football)

  • 2017: Roquan Smith
  • 2018: Devin White
  • 2019: isaiah Simmons
  • 2020: Jeremiah Owusu-Karamoah

Nagurski (top defensive player in college football)

  • 2017 Bradley Chubb
  • 2018 Josh Allen
  • 2019 Chase Young
  • 2020 Zaven Collins

Bednarik (most outstanding defensive player in college football)

  • 2017 Minkah Fitzpatrick
  • 2018 Josh Allen
  • 2019 Chase Young
  • 2020 Zaven Collins

What do all of these players (except Jeremiah Owusu-Karamoah*—who slid to R2 because of a medical question) have in common?

  • All were 1st round picks
  • All were starters as rookies (with Simmons having the least number of starts)
  • All were awarded PFWA All-Rookie team honors
  • All have been Pro Bowl invitees (save Simmons and the 2021 draft picks)

As for the ILBs on this list —- Roquan Smith (CHI) and Devin White (TB) —- plus other 1st Round ILB picks over the past few years like Tremaine Edmunds (BUF-2x Pro Bowler), Devin Bush (PIT—-PFWA All- Rookie Team in 2019) and Leighton Vander Esch (DAL-Pro Bowl and 2nd Team All-Pro in 2018) —- all of them started as rookies.

Having world-class athletes as 3 down NFL MIKE inside linebackers is in vogue and has quickly become a 21st century trend. There are obvious reasons for this, as NFL offenses have become more and more pass, play action and RPO happy, especially on early downs. Plus, as more and more NFL offenses are being led by highly mobile, dual-threat QBs.

Notice that Zaven Collins is the only MIKE inside linebacker to win the Nagurski and Bednarik awards in recent years. That’s quite a feat.

The Arizona Cardinals identified the MIKE inside linebacker position as a priority upgrade this off-season, which is why they drafted Zaven Collins at #16 with the intention of starting him from day one —- just like the Bears, Bucs, Bills, Steelers and Cowboys did when they addressed their MIKE positions in round 1.

The Cardinals, upon reflection, have realized that they should have done the same for Isaiah Simmons. Yes, rookies are going to make some mistakes, but that’s how they learn best —- on the job and in the middle of the action. Ultimately, a world class athlete and outstanding football player like Isaiah Simmons does not belong on the sidelines. Nor, therefore, does Zaven Collins.

  • 2-Why didn’t Steve Keim and Kliff Kingsbury at least make it a competition between Jordan Hicks and Zaven Collins?

This answer is simple. In order to assimilate Zaven Collins as quickly as possible as the starter at MIKE, he will benefit the most from taking the highest number of reps. Having spent a good deal of time interviewing and meeting with Collins before the draft, the Cardinals are enamored not only in Collins’ unique physical abilities and instincts, they are confident that he can pick up the calls and communicate them in the huddle and from his position on pre-snaps. As far as being a quick and efficient learner, Collins was the valedictorian of his high school class and his coaches at Tulsa rave about his passion and facility in learning and applying all of the nuances of his position.

If the Cardinals were to make this a legitimate competition, then they would have to share the reps, out of fairness to Jordan Hicks.

  • 3-How can the Cardinals’ afford to let Hicks go when they are so thin depth-wise at inside linebacker?

Despite what some folks on Twitter want Cardinals’ fans to believe, the Cardinals are not thin depth-wise at inside linebacker. In fact, Steve Keim, Kliff Kingsbury and Vance Joseph like their depth, which is why they re-signed Tanner Vallejo to a 2 year $3.3M contract and told him that they plan to use him more in the defense this season.

One could make the argument that the ILB tandem of Isaiah Simmons and Tanner Vallejo should have been the starters after they were largely responsible for helping the Cardinals beat the Seahawks in overtime in Week 7.

It took the two best downhill run stuffs of the season from the MIKE position by Tanner Vallejo to set up Isaiah Simmons’ game changing interception of Russell Wilson. The chemistry that Vallejo and Simmons displayed under the highest of stress in that nail-biter of a game was outstanding.

The following week was the team’s BYE week. Imagine how the team’s fortunes might have been different had Vance Jospeh spent that week grooming Simmons and Vallejo to pick up where they left off versus the Seahawks.

Week 7: vs. SEA (37-34 OT W) PFF grades:

* Isaiah Simmons 92.6 (88.2 in coverage); Tanner Vallejo: 85.8 (82.0 run defense).

Week 9 (after Week 8 BYE): vs. MIA (31-34 L) PFF grades:

  • De’Vondre Campbell 44.6 (50.8 in coverage); Jordan Hicks 55.7 (56.3 in run defense).

Amazingly, while Jordan Hicks was faltering down the stretch, after Tanner Vallejo shined in the win over the Seahawks, he was only given 5 snaps between Weeks 10-16. When Vance Joseph finally gave Vallejo extended snaps (26) in Week 17 versus the Rams, he delivered 12 tackles and 1 QB hit. That’s a tackle or a QB hit (12 + 1 = 13) in half of his 26 snaps.

2021 Depth Chart w/o Hicks

  • MIKE: Zaven Collins, Tanner Vallejo, Evan Weaver
  • WILL: Isaiah Simmons, Ezekiel Turner, Terrance Smith, Jamal Carter, Donald Rutledge

Some fans yesterday were ragging on Evan Weaver as a depth player, but whom do you think is more eager to stuff a RB in the hole, Jordan Hicks or Evan Weaver? Evan Weaver runs downhill to the ball and he lets’ RBs have it. Plus, Weaver might become a mini-Gardecki on special teams.

Also, no one should ever count out Zeke Turner, who has shines at ILB whenever he has been given the opportunity to play. Turner is one of the very best tacklers on the roster, plus he’s a STs all-star.

That’s the other thing —- backups are counted on to play special teams.

  • 4-How can the Cardinals do one of the stupidest things imaginable by letting Hicks find a trade partner?

Lou Holtz tells a very amusing story about “the smartest decision I ever made in my life.” He said that when he was a junior at Kent St. University, he signed up for a very challenging course in Advanced Macro-Economics. When he arrived for the first class, he noticed that the student who reportedly had the highest IQ at the university was sitting in the front row.

Holtz said that instead of sitting in the back row as he was accustomed to doing, he thought he would turn over a new leaf and sit in the front row. So he took the desk next to the student with the high IQ. Minutes later, the valedictorian from his high school entered the room. When he spotted Lou sitting in the front row, he took the desk on the other side of him. After a brief chat with his high school friend, the professor emerged and began the class by saying:

“I have to be perfectly honest with you. Advanced Macro-Economics is perhaps the most difficult and demanding course at the university. In fact, what I would like yo to do is take a look at the student to your right and then take look at the student to your left and know that odds are that only one of you will pass this course.”

Holtz said the smartest thing he ever did was drop the class.

The Cardinals have rendered Jordan Hicks a lame duck. Think about it.

  • 1 —- they asked him to take a pay cut, which he agreed to. If that wasn’t humiliating enough...
  • 2 —- they re-signed his 2020 backup, Tanner Vallejo to a 2 year $3.3M contract with assurances that he will be used more on the defense.
  • 3 —- they drafted Zaven Collins with the #16 pick specifically to play MIKE inside linebacker.
  • 4 —- they assured Collins, Vance Joseph and Cardinals’ fans that “there ain’t no redshirting” and that the Cardinals’ intention is to play Collins from the get-go and play him a lot.
  • 5 —- when Steve Keim and Kliff Kingsbury were asked what drafting Zaven Collins means to Jordan Hicks’ status, neither Keim nor Kingsbury would comment. That’s not a good sign, folks.

Imagine how you would feel if your company had asked you to take a pay cut, then they announce the hiring of a new employee whose specialty is at your position and when they are asked what the new hire means to your status with the company, none of the bosses care to even mention your name.

Imagine then what Jordan Hicks must have been thinking and feeling while watching that press conference.

These are the reasons why I wrote the article “Spare Jordan.”

Had Hicks played well enough and with strong enough urgency last season, the Cardinals certainly would not have addressed his position with their 1st round pick.

Is Jordan Hicks a better player than what he showed this past season? Yes, I believe he is.

But, what Jordan Hicks needs to do, wherever he plays this season, is shed some weight and do everything he can to try to improve his playing speed.

For right or for wrong, I wondered from day one of training camp last year whether Hicks (plus a few of his veteran teammates) had worked out hard enough during the off-season. I got the impression that some of the players may have been convinced that there would be no NFL season and thus weren’t training as hard for camp as they normally would.

Psychologically, to feel under-prepared as an NFL football player makes it very difficult to feel confident.

During the first week of training cam, when I watched the linebacker drills, I wondered whether Hicks was injured, because his footwork in the drills was dreadfully slow. The most apt word to describe Hicks’ performance in these basic footwork drills was “lumbering.”

I said so at the time here and on Twitter.

By contrast, Tanner Vallejo was chopping his feet in and out of the ropes like well-oiled pistons. As a former high school coach, I was always fascinated to see which of my players had the best feet and which of them the highest eagerness to bust their tails during the drills. Typically those who have good feet and a strong work ethic are the stars of the team.

Football is a game of feet —-

Football is also a game of stamina —- the most confident players are often in the very best of shape, and they know it, the way Larry Fitzgerald knows it.

By now, Jordan Hicks likely knows that if he doesn’t improve his playing speed and re-invent his eagerness to meet RBs in the holes, then he might never be a starting ILB again.

If Jordan Hicks’ subpar play was a case of him trying to play through injuries, then that was not only his mistake, but an egregious mistake on the part of the Cardinals’ coaches, as well.

Something just wasn’t right about Jordan Hicks from day one this past season —- he was just so slow afoot and at times, even worse, so slow to react.

On this play, Jordan Hicks’ read is the RG in front of him, who, off the snap, pulls to the left. Inside linebackers are always taught that the guard in front of you will take you to the ball 95% of the time. Therefore, had Jordan Hicks reacted to the RG pulling by chasing the flow laterally, as he is coached to do, this big-time pancake by Trent Williams would have (and should have) never happened. You feel bad for Hicks for standing there like a sitting duck. And hey, he took it like man and bounced back up.

Of course, who saves the day on this play because others didn't do their jobs properly?

That’s right, Budda Baker.

At the 2015 NFL Combine, Jordan Hicks at 6-1, 232 ran a 4.68 40, a 4.15 20 yard shuttle, a 6.78 3 cone and posted a 38” vertical. Those numbers suggest that Hicks once had the feet and explosion to be a very good NFL linebacker. No question, the Eagles felt they got a steal when they drafted him in the 3rd round.

Look at how quicker Jordan Hicks is, both in reacting to his keys and the ball, but also in arriving at the ball. The one critique to point out here is Hicks’ tendency to tackle too high, like a bear hugger —- which he has yet to fully correct.

Now, do yourself a favor and compare Jordan Hicks’ college highlights to Zaven Collins’ —- what do you see?

Zaven Collins is plugging holes, delivering thunderous tackles and making plays in coverage that the Cardinals were eagerly hoping to get when they signed Jordan Hicks to a 4 year $34M contract.

This past season, Hicks looked well above the 236 pounds that the Cardinals ascribe to him, and, let’s face it, his footwork in 2020 was not even close to the times he ran back at the Combine.

The truth is, players losing a step or two happens a lot in the NFL as they bulk up and get heavier.

But the issue for Jordan Hicks is, the ILB position in the NFL is attracting players with quick feet and acceleration. Faster, more urgent rookies are taking up the starting jobs as rookies.

Can Jordan Hicks train to get back to running those times? If he gets his weight down, there’s a chance.

The balance of his NFL career might depend on it.

It would be great if Hicks could get back to playing with this type of anticipation and urgency (the very reasons why the Cardinals signed him in 2019 to a 4 year $34M contract with $20M guaranteed):

Sometimes a mid-career wake-up call is what an NFL player needs. Jordan Hicks has a lot going for him. He’s won a Super Bowl ring with he Eagles (albeit when he was injured and wasn’t able to play in the Super Bowl) and he’s been a captain of an up-and-coming team. He is extremely well spoken. And his career earnings are close to $30M.

Maybe Jordan Hicks succumbed to the Cardinals’ veteran “fat-cat” “country club” culture. He certainly had a front row view of watching defensive teammates run at half speed, act confused when things didn’t go their way and fake an interest in tackling —- we know who they are —- and thank goodness they are all retired or playing elsewhere now. You know, Hicks watched Terrell Suggs get trotted out there by the coaches week after week when he clearly was playing at half speed and, in his own words, “stealing from the Cardinals.”

After Tyrann Mathieu got his money from the Cardinals, he did the same.

But, as I wrote yesterday, regarding and applauding Steve Keim’s new commitment to weeding out the slackers, unfortunately Jordan Hicks’ game tapes in 2020 are very frustrating to watch.

Therefore, it was likely not an error of omission that neither Keim nor Kliff Kingsbury would at least say, “Oh, yeah, Jordan is still very much in our plans.”

Because it has become very clear that he is not.

Whether that is right, or that is wrong.

And if any of you have ever been a lame duck at work, you know how humiliating and demoralizing it is. No matter how much your colleagues try to tell you how bad you are getting screwed, it cannot take away the harrowing feeling of disgrace.

Spare Jordan. It’s the right thing to do.