Cardinals free agency refresher: The next step for Isaiah Simmons, ILBs
The National Football League’s new season officially begins next Wednesday.
League-wide, the Arizona Cardinals have the largest share of 2020 snaps taken by players who will enter free agency this offseason, according to OverTheCap.com. Forty-four percent of the team’s total snaps could be lost in free agency.
General manager Steve Keim will see what he can do to retain many of those players after an 8-8 season. But with spending limited due to a salary cap drop — plus teams expected to be shedding big contracts before free agency — there are many roster decisions to make on the fly.
This series, originally published in January, has been refreshed with any updates before free agency begins.
Players under contract
Jordan Hicks ($9,000,000)
Isaiah Simmons ($4,696,376)
Tanner Vallejo (reportedly re-signed on a two-year, $4.1 million deal)
Ezekiel Turner (tender extended)
The good news
The inside linebacker room is a fine example of how a professional football team can spend well, stagger where that future cash is spent and develop internally — all at the same time. It’s also an example of the super thin line between having quality over quantity.
Jordan Hicks, the quarterback of Arizona’s base sets, remains under contract for two more years. He’s still a highly productive middle linebacker.
Last offseason, the Cardinals signed De’Vondre Campbell to a creative, well-paying deal that is essentially for one year with dead money landing on the salary cap next season. It voided days after the Super Bowl this year. Arizona might have to pay a price to keep him.
If not, Isaiah Simmons appears poised to step into Campbell’s place coming off his rookie season.
Simmons came along slowly due to the pandemic taking away what defensive coordinator Vance Joseph calculated as close to 1,200 combined snaps at rookie mini-camp, OTAs and training camp. When the season started, Arizona made sure not to put too much on Simmons. He was learning how to be the connective tissue of a team’s defense.
By the end of the year, Simmons shined by stepping in for a banged up Campbell and had stints playing as a pass-rushing outside backer and dropping as the deep safety on consecutive plays.
Simmons finished his admittedly frustrating rookie season with 54 tackles, two sacks, three quarterback hits, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Not bad at all.
His speed and physicality translated from the college game — and at times it was too much. Simmons earned five penalties, all of which involved how he tackled an opponent.
The most promising part of Simmons’ game was his coverage ability in a 6-foot-4, 238-pound frame. Of Cardinals who had 20 or more snaps in coverage, only backup safety Charles Washington (21 snaps) finished the year with a better coverage grade than Simmons (206), who played nearly 10 times as many possessions, according to Pro Football Focus.
He passed the eye test. Now to see if he catches up to the rest of his teammates with a full offseason — and a year of experience — in his back pocket.
Let’s operate under the assumption that Campbell won’t be back.
He was one of Arizona’s best tacklers (99 total), a physical run defender and a capable coverage man, at least against most tight ends. Campbell was a reason that the defense’s two most prolific tacklers, Hicks and safety Budda Baker, saw their tackle numbers slip — and maybe that was a good thing.
So if Campbell is gone and Simmons indeed steps into a starting role, the Cardinals will then be limited in what they can do with their 2020 first-round pick. If you remember, Simmons often played alongside both Hicks and Campbell.
Who fills in at inside linebacker during packages in which Simmons stalks the line of scrimmage and rushes the passer? What if Joseph wants Simmons to drop as a safety or match up in man coverage in the slot against heavy tight end packages?
Then it’s a matter if the Cardinals want Simmons to play almost exclusively at inside linebacker, or if they’d rather use him as a true Swiss Army Knife.
Maybe leaning on a deeper group of safeties, including Baker, will provide an avenue to get the latter.
Tanner Vallejo, who backed up Hicks and knows the defense well, has reportedly agreed to return on a two-year deal worth $4.1 million. The 26-year-old appears to have the trust of defensive coordinator Vance Joseph and maybe answers some questions.
Still, the Cardinals have avoided serious injuries at inside linebacker so far in the Kliff Kingsbury era. They’re not currently greatly prepared to survive if the luck runs out, though signing Vallejo before the league year helps.
Anyway, Simmons’ ability to shift positions is a strength that wasn’t utilized enough to many fans’ liking because the Cardinals wanted to slow-roll his development. That’s all in the past.
It sure would be a luxury to have him enter Year 2 available to play multiple roles as Arizona envisioned when it drafted him No. 8 overall. Whether or not that’s possible remains to be seen.