Call him ‘eraser’: Expect Cardinals to experiment with Isaiah Simmons’ role
Apr 23, 2020, 9:24 PM | Updated: Apr 28, 2020, 3:31 pm
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Some labeled Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons as a linebacker. He played a lot of safety and appeared as a corner.
He’s the size of an edge rusher and played in a pass-rushing role as well.
It’s probably not worth getting too deep into semantics about what to call the new Arizona Cardinal and No. 8 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. “Defender” would suffice, but Cardinals general manager Steve Keim might have tagged him with another name:
“You watch him on tape, you see him play the deep middle, the deep half. You see him play in the box, you see him blitz, rush the passer … We call that kind of player an ‘eraser’ in this league,” Keim said on a Zoom call Thursday.
“Really feel like he’s a really unusual, unique, dynamic player, a guy who does multiple things for you,” the GM added. “It’s my 22nd draft in the NFL. I don’t know I’ve scouted many players like this.”
“Eraser” sure would simplify things.
Simmons played 299 snaps at inside linebacker, 262 as a slot corner, 132 as a free safety, 116 at outside linebacker and 100 as strong safety for national champion Clemson in 2019, according to Pro Football Focus.
The 21-year-old was everywhere, piling up 104 tackles with 16.5 for loss, adding 8.0 sacks and three interceptions.
Asked multiple times and in multiple ways how the Cardinals would use Simmons, Keim said they would will use him just like Clemson did.
“Multiple spots. Different defenses and different alignments,” Keim said. “I can see him as a dime linebacker, middle linebacker, strong safety, multiple spots. But he’ll find his way on the field, that’s for sure.”
In college, Simmons said the Tigers literally approached his role as an experiment. He would be in the safety room one day and the linebacker room the next. He would learn one role and change positions depending on the week and the gameplan.
“Week to week, we were kind of experimenting,” Simmons said of his role in college.
“It just all came with a lot of trust. The plan each week was pretty experimental. We weren’t quite sure if it was going to work or not.”
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons Simmons fell to No. 8. Despite being a top-five prospect by most accounts, there was a sense that NFL executives had a tough time gauging Simmons because they didn’t know what position he’d play.
For Keim, head coach Kliff Kingsbury and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, there’s hope that versatility is less of a concern and more of a strength.
“Worked pretty well at Clemson,” Simmons said. “I honestly feel like it’s a strength because it creates so much deception on the defense.”
Simmons, Keim said, is expected to play and immediately. That’s despite the Cardinals entering 2020 with two clear starting-caliber inside linebackers (Jordan Hicks and De’Vondre Campbell), two starting outside linebackers (Chandler Jones and Devon Kennard) and two starting safeties returning from last year (Budda Baker and Jalen Thompson).
Thompson might have to fight to retain his starting role, and nickel corner Byron Murphy, last year’s second-round pick, will have to earn his snaps too. But in a best-case scenario, all of those players are healthy and contributing — and Simmons is able to be Joseph’s best chess piece.
Simmons said he’s not adverse to learning one position and building from there, but he added he’s “very, very open” to bouncing around the field.
“To my understanding, I’m sure it’ll move around week to week,” he said.
He has the length that safeties don’t have and the speed that linebackers don’t to cover tight ends, something Arizona struggled with by allowing 15 touchdowns to opposing tight ends in 2019.
Keim did his homework on Simmons, spending time with Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney in Arizona and attending a practice at Arizona State University in Tempe when the Tigers were in town prepping for the Fiesta Bowl in December 2019.
Keim also had a strong sense of Simmons as a player. His college offensive line coach from North Carolina State, Robbie Caldwell, is the line coach at Clemson. That helped Keim buy in to Simmons’ character and IQ that helped him pick up so many different positions.
“In our minds, certainly one of the best players in this draft,” Keim said. “To be able to select him at the eighth overall spot, we feel very fortunate.”
The Cardinals will need to create a unique plan to find out how they can use him. A potentially shortened offseason due to the coronavirus could keep Simmons off the field, and that could hurt his development.
“It’s our jobs as coaches to put an athlete like that in a position to be successful,” Kingsbury said.
“Everything that we’ve found out about the kid is that he picks things up quickly. We’re going to see what he can handle.”
They expect he can handle a lot.