DAN BICKLEY

Isaiah Simmons must become a playmaker for Arizona Cardinals

Aug 2, 2022, 3:52 PM
Inside linebacker Isaiah Simmons #9 of the Arizona Cardinals during the NFL game at State Farm Stad...
Inside linebacker Isaiah Simmons #9 of the Arizona Cardinals during the NFL game at State Farm Stadium on November 14, 2021 in Glendale, Arizona. The Panthers defeated the Cardinals 34-10. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Arizona Cardinals have the toughest schedule in the NFL. They gave up a home game to play a division rival in Mexico City. Their offseason has been full of contractual drama and void of talent acquisition. They come with a lot of question marks, none bigger than this:

How many truly elite players and playmakers populate their roster?

I count five: Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins, Budda Baker, Rodney Hudson and J.J. Watt. That’s not enough.

That’s why Isaiah Simmons is so important. He must be No. 6. He must tilt the playing field and strike fear in opponents, in the way that Chandler Jones once did. He is extremely fast and supremely violent, and he needs to be the breakout performer if the Cardinals are going to survive the gauntlet ahead.

“I’m my biggest critic,” Simmons said before the start of training camp. “And, you know, my expectations for myself are to be the best, you know, in the game ever. So, I don’t ever want to sell myself short. I mean, why not dream big? Why not want to be the best player to ever touch the NFL?”

We have grown numb from all the flexing, glossing and general narcissism in professional sports, and NFL training camps are the worst. They are full of reckless, relentless optimism, a magical world full of unicorns and first-down fairies, where every team is going to the playoffs and everyone is in the best shape of their lives.

But Simmons’ words feel different. They’re heavier. They were his declaration of greatness.

Simmons said he feels ready to “dominate,” and that he can be “one of the best” linebackers in the league. His defensive coordinator, Vance Joseph, is now calling the versatile Simmons his “star backer,” hinting that Simmons will wreak havoc all over the field.

Joseph also believes Simmons is on the brink of stardom. After all the disappointments, why should we believe them?

“Everything is 100% slowed down,” Simmons said. “I’m a lot more comfortable than I was last year.”

Simmons was good in 2021. He recorded 105 tackles. He was charted at eight different positions. He flashed his outrageous talent in that other-worldly strip-sack of the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott and his goal-line demolition of the 49ers’ Trey Lance. He was erratic enough to play a mere 32 percent of the snaps in a disastrous playoff loss to the Rams, a season low.

Simmons certainly sounds more comfortable, more combative. He claims he now verbally challenges Watt, admitting they “butt heads a little bit.” During Tuesday’s practice, he reportedly engaged in a heated exchange with Hopkins. I heartily endorse this behavior.

Remember, the players who are scared and those who are swimming don’t talk a lot of trash on a football field. The hope is that Simmons’ nasty attitude foreshadows a breakthrough season for a former No. 8 overall draft pick, a special athlete with an incredibly high ceiling.

The Cardinals need it. They are a good team with a suspect defense, a team that does not impress most analytics critics. The Cardinals have excellent tight ends and kickers. They have junkyard dogs in James Conner and Markus Golden. They could have rising stars in Hollywood Brown, Byron Murphy Jr., Rondale Moore and Jalen Thompson.

But they need more sizzle, especially on defense. They need Simmons to hit big in 2022, landing somewhere in between Daryl Washington and Lawrence Taylor. And after declaring impending greatness, like Simmons did over the summer, there is nowhere to hide. Nowhere to go but up.

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