Whenever I see NFL teams selecting multi-position defensive players early enough in the draft to virtually force a starting role sooner than later, I’m reminded of something Casey Stengel once said on another matter: “They say it can’t be done, but sometimes that doesn’t always work.” Unless your coaches have an absolute plan for such a player, that player will get lost in transition until and unless such a plan comes together.
This was the case for Simmons, the former Clemson weapon everywhere from the defensive line to the slot, who the Cardinals selected with the eighth overall pick. General manager Steve Keim has long been interested in multi-positional players — his history with that goes back to former draft picks Tyrann Mathieu in 2013 and Deone Bucannon in 2014 — so you would assume that Simmons would come on board with a specific goal in mind for his unique gifts.
That didn’t really happen. Simmons started just seven games last season, playing 89 snaps on the defensive line, 193 in the box, 71 in the slot, eight at free safety, and 15 at slot cornerback. He was predominantly effective as an interior blitzer and coverage guy, but overall, it seemed that option anxiety got the better of him.
“It’s been two weeks in a row where he’s playing like an NFL linebacker. He’s playing some nickel, he’s covering receivers,” Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said of Simmons in November. “To his credit, he’s been patient — he’s been frustrated — but he’s been patient in waiting his turn and learning and working in practice. It’s showing in the games. We’ve got to play him more because he can help us win.
“He’s been patient to wait his turn, but it’s time.”
Simmons got more snaps as the season went along, but he also showed the dings in the plan with increased opportunities. He allowed touchdown passes against the Eagles and 49ers in Weeks 15 and 16,
Revisiting Arizona’s 0-6-5 which I wrote about last week:
*Disguising the pressure
*Attacking from the edges with athletes
*Forcing quick throws
*Getting Isaiah Simmons involved pic.twitter.com/vBwYR8wqJQ
— Mark Schofield (@MarkSchofield) October 28, 2020
In May, Joseph told NFL.com’s Jim Trotter that the Simmons plan is now more specific.
“He’s comfortable at outside linebacker,” Trotter said Joseph told him. “He’s comfortable rushing the passer, we even used him at safety for two games, but the one area we want to work with him on this year is playing inside linebacker behind that line of scrimmage in the run game and then the dime package.”
Makes sense, especially since the Cardinals doubled down and selected another multi-positional linebacker, Tulsa’s Zaven Collins, in the first round of the 2021 draft. If the Cardinals are going to have the same adaptive issues with Collins this year, they’d better get Simmons’ role nailed down sooner than later.