The Arizona Cardinals needed to address the linebacker position this offseason. Stability in the secondary, specifically the safety position, certainly wouldn’t hurt. The organization also had to figure out a way to cover tight ends, something they were egregiously bad at in 2019. Another pass rush option opposite Chandler Jones could make life complicated for opposing offensive lines.
It’s not surprising that the team that gave up the the most yards in the NFL last year would have a long wishlist to stabilize that side of the football.
The team may have checked off quite a few items off that list with one player on Thursday: first round selection Isaiah Simmons.
The Clemson Swiss Army Knife logged over 100 snaps at safety, slot cornerback, outside linebacker and inside linebacker for the Tigers in 2019.
So is Simmons best suited to be Kliff’s chameleon or to lock in to a single role?
“Everything just depends on the team you’re playing and the game plan,” Simmons told reporters Thursday night. “I’m not really opposed to honing in one position and mastering that, but I’m also very, very open to moving around and playing a similar role I did at Clemson.”
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Now, the challenge for Steve Keim, Kliff Kingsbury and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph is to come up with a plan that best exemplifies their rookie’s utility belt of skills. Keim told reporters after the selection that the best route is to walk a tight rope between having a plan and trusting Simmons’ versatility to take over on the field.
“When you have a guy that’s this long and this fast, and this productive, you just let him go,” Keim said.
“This league has become a mismatch league where you see tight ends and you see things that offensive coordinators like Kliff take advantage of defenses. To me, this guy is an eraser and minimizes some of those problems.”
One problem the Cardinal defense assuredly wants to erase is the inability to cover tight ends. In 2019, Arizona gave up 17 touchdowns in 16 games to the position. Keim cited the matchup issues that can arise against the modern tight end: the guys who are quick enough to cover the position – the Budda Bakers and Tyrann Mathieus of the world – are giving up six inches of height in jump ball scenarios. The linebackers who are big enough to hold their own in those situations can’t keep up with the likes of George Kittle in a foot race.
According to Keim, Simmons provides the length and the speed to be the ailment to thorn in the Cardinal defense’s side.
“You’ve got a guy who’s 6-foot-4, 34-inch arms and runs a 4.3 (40-yard dash),” Keim said. “When you watch him move on tape, he’s sort of like a Gumby doll. He’s got zero stiffness. He’s a natural knee-bender, got tremendous natural quickness. He can run and close like a bullet.”
So now that the Bird Gang has a heat-seeking missile meets wrecking ball meets Indy car, what’s the best route to exploit opposing offenses?
That could be the difference between shaping Simmons into a nightmare for the NFC West and a top-10 miss that keeps Keim up at night.