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Simmons: ‘Sky’s the limit’ alongside ILB Zaven Collins in Cardinals defense

Linebacker Zaven Collins #25 of the Arizona Cardinals participates in an off-season workout at Dignity Health Arizona Cardinals Training Center on June 09, 2021 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

TEMPE, Ariz. — The Arizona Cardinals defense underwent quite the facelift this offseason.

Mainstays including cornerback Patrick Peterson and linebacker Haason Reddick are off to new homes, as are fellow 2020 starters like linebacker De’Vondre Campbell and tight end Dan Arnold. Defensive tackle Corey Peters’ future is still up in the air as he remains a free agent coming off a season-ending injury.

Then there’s linebacker Jordan Hicks, who remains on the team, but is reportedly looking for a new place to hang his helmet after starting all 32 games the past two seasons in the desert.

While the Cardinals’ future plans might not involve Hicks, he was still a big part of the defense, forcing rookie linebacker Zaven Collins to show just what his first-round price tag was worth early on in his NFL career.

And from the sounds of it, defensive coordinator Vance Joseph is seeing the team’s next quarterback of the defense take form.

“He is such a humble guy and hardworking guy, he’s going to get it done,” Joseph said Wednesday after Day 2 of minicamp. “It won’t be perfect every day, but I told [linebackers coach] Billy Davis five minutes ago, ‘He’s going to make more plays than he makes mistakes.’

“So far, He’s putting the work in to gain the trust of his teammates and his coaches. It is what it is. He’s the MIKE backer, he’s going to play and he’s ready for it.”

Collins’ honesty is already on display, Joseph added, with veterans seeing firsthand his accountability and the time he is dedicating to fine-tuning his craft.

But it’s not all on the Collins, who has the benefit of veteran leaders like Budda Baker and J.J. Watt on the field with him.

He’s also joined on the inside by second-year linebacker Isaiah Simmons, who’s looking to minimize mistakes and has improved his comfort level with the defense as a whole ahead of 2021.

After a slow start to last season (three starts), Simmons strung together a nice second half of the year. In the final 10 games, Simmons recorded 43 tackles, 2.0 sacks, an interception, one pass deflection and a forced fumble.

“Personally with me and Zaven together I feel like sky’s the limit,” Simmons said Wednesday. “He’s really smart, big, athletic guy that can move very well. And I really mean smart. I just found out he’s pre-med, so in my eyes, he’s a genius. … I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun for both us just learning as we go along.

“We have such a veteran group around us. It’s crazy just having the opportunity for both of us to learn from guys like Budda and J.J. Watt, Malcolm Butler, Chandler and the list goes on. There’s so many people that are surrounding us that’s going to make this year so fun. Zaven, he’s learning very, very fast and he’s look very, very good, so I’m really excited for this year.”

The pairing is undoubtedly raw. Time and experience together will help resolve that, but the two show promise.

In the right situation, they can flourish. Joseph can already see that. Now it’s up to him to get them there.

Luckily for the coordinator, this isn’t the first time dealing with a pair of young linebackers in the NFC West.

“As a coach I think you have to understand there’s gonna be some bad downs. But also on the flip side, there’s gonna be plays where those two guys can make that other guys can’t make,” Joseph said. It’s our job as a staff, mine especially, to put players first and scheme second and let those guys unlock those bodies and just play.

I did it in [San Francisco]. We had Pat Willis and Navarro Bowman when they were young guys and we kinda simplified those things and allowed those guys to run and hit. It’s a players league, so it’s my job to simplify things so those guys can play fast, make the least mistakes they can make and also make plays, but have enough scheme where we can defend ourselves but allow those guys to run and hit and to play free. That’s my job as a coordinator.”

EXTRA POINTS

– Simmons on his number change:

“I might feel just a little faster with the single digit. I know everybody wanted to see me in No. 11, but respect to Larry [Fitzgerald]. He did great things in this community as well as this team. He’s a legend here, so I wouldn’t even want to wear No. 11 here. But the No. 9, I wouldn’t say there’s really a huge significance to it but I’m feeling good in it.”


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