ESPN spotlights Arizona Cardinals’ LBs, CBs as two key positions to watch

Aug 19, 2022, 7:10 PM
Cam Akers #23 of the Los Angeles Rams runs with the ball as Zaven Collins #25 and Marco Wilson #20 ...
Cam Akers #23 of the Los Angeles Rams runs with the ball as Zaven Collins #25 and Marco Wilson #20 of the Arizona Cardinals defend in the first quarter of the NFC Wild Card Playoff game at SoFi Stadium on January 17, 2022 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

In the months of talk leading up to the start of the Arizona Cardinals’ 2022 season, the two X-factors from a positional standpoint that have undoubtedly emerged are linebacker and cornerback.

The lack of proven commodities plus the potential upside at linebacker specifically have those two groups feeling like the make-or-break aspect of a defense that could be either pretty good, pretty bad or somewhere in between.

So, unsurprisingly, both of them fit into an exercise done by ESPN’s Mike Clay where Clay analyzed 10 different positions by breaking them down into one pick for each of these three groups: Best, Shakiest and Unit to watch.

Clay had Arizona’s off-ball linebackers as the one to watch.

Arizona selected an off-ball linebacker in the first round of both the 2020 (Isaiah Simmons at eighth overall) and 2021 (Zaven Collins at 16th overall) drafts. Neither has lived up to lofty pedigree just yet, but 2022 is a potential breakout campaign for the duo. Collins was solid as a rookie, but he was limited to 211 snaps in a situational role behind Simmons and Jordan Hicks.

With Hicks gone, the 23-year-old is positioned for a larger role opposite Simmons, who played 89% of the snaps last season. If Collins makes a big leap, this could quickly emerge as one of the league’s best units.

Now, the interesting part of breaking down that group is how Simmons will be utilized in the “star backer” role as a defensive weapon that will bounce between that linebacker spot, safety and dime back. Simmons still technically accounts for that linebacker spot but using him in that way absolutely qualifies as something worth keeping an eye on.

While Clay is optimistic about Collins’ upside and how he performed as a rookie, a name worth bringing up is Nick Vigil. Based on what we’ve seen in training camp so far, it seems safe to say we will see some snaps with either Simmons and Vigil lined up alongside each other or Vigil and Collins.

For cornerbacks, Clay put down the Cardinals’ CBs as the shakiest in the NFL and ranked them dead last.

The Cardinals are a team looking to make a Super Bowl run, so it was surprising to watch them all but ignore the cornerback position again this past offseason. Byron Murphy Jr. is a serviceable and versatile stater, but he doesn’t have much help. Marco Wilson struggled as an every-down player as a fourth-round rookie last season and remains positioned to start opposite Murphy in 2020. Journeyman Antonio Hamilton is the best option as the nickel corner as the roster stands, with Jace Whittaker, Josh Jackson and seventh-round rookie Christian Matthew competing for snaps.

Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury said on Friday that Hamilton has actually surpassed Wilson at the moment as the team’s No. 2 overall corner, which produces some hesitancy on Wilson given how many reps he got as a rookie last year.

Arizona Sports’ John Gambadoro has been reporting on Burns & Gambo for a few weeks that he expects the Cardinals will make a trade for a cornerback at some point.

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ESPN spotlights Arizona Cardinals’ LBs, CBs as two key positions to watch