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PFF: Cardinals LB Isaiah Simmons a breakout candidate in 2021

Linebacker Isaiah Simmons #48 of the Arizona Cardinals warms up before the NFL game against the Buffalo Bills at State Farm Stadium on November 15, 2020 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Bills 32-30. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The 2020 season was a rocky one at times for Arizona Cardinals’ first-round pick Isaiah Simmons.

Simmons, who was selected with the eighth pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, finished the season with 43 tackles and two sacks, but ranked lowly in several defensive metrics.

One such metric was analytics site Pro Football Focus’ grading system, which had the former Clemson Tiger ranked 59.9 on a scale that goes from 0-100.

Simmons’ showed signs of progress as the season progressed, however, with his PFF grades for defense, run defense and coverage all improving from Week 1 to Week 17.

The first-round pick’s debut didn’t go to plan, with the linebacker putting up a 27.1 grade against the San Francisco 49ers — his lowest ranking of the season.

His next nine appearances all saw him rank between 53.0 and 92.6 in that category, however, showing Simmons’ progress in playing defense at the professional level.

Simmons’ yearlong improvement at linebacker led PFF’s Sam Monson to rank him as the Cardinals’ best breakout candidate for 2021.

Monson addressed Simmons’ troublesome debut in his article, using it as evidence of the linebacker’s improvement on the defensive side of the ball during his rookie campaign.

“There were few worse debuts than that of Isaiah Simmons, who was lit up in Week 1 by Kyle Shanahan and the San Francisco 49ers to the point that he barely played for the next several weeks before getting worked back into the defense over the second half of the season,” Monson said.

“Simmons was always likely to have a bumpy transition to the NFL, learning an entirely new position after plying his trade as a defensive back in college. Simmons ended the season with 376 defensive snaps and a mediocre 59.9 PFF grade, but he flashed playmaking ability and should have a much better season in 2021 after the learning experience of his rookie season.”

Whether Simmons can build on the strong finish he put together in the closing weeks of 2020 is yet to be seen.

Simmons compiled rankings that ranged from 55.5 to 67.9 during the team’s season finale against the Los Angeles Rams and had defensive rankings of 65.5 and 65.8 against the Philadelphia Eagles (Week 15) and New York Giants (Week 14).

The linebacker’s ability to avoid a sophomore slump and build off the progress he made in 2020 will be key as the Cardinals look to make the postseason for the first time in six years in 2021.

Count PFF as a believer in Simmons’ ability to help the team do just that in the year ahead.

Phillips Law Group

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