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Isaiah Simmons: What defensive position will he play for the Arizona Cardinals?

Projecting the Swiss Army Knife Isaiah Simmons defensive position in 2020 is about as difficult as running down Kyler Murray in open space.

And no, I am not coining Simmons new nickname, although the Knife does sound pretty cool.

The Arizona Cardinals were widely praised for their #8 pick in the 2020 NFL draft. Analysts and fans collectively had the Cardinals going offensive tackle at 8, mostly because no one had Simmons getting past Carolina at 7 – at worst. One exception, this Time Skew article by our very own Anthony Tones Ariola had the Cardinals trading the 8th pick to Atlanta who then went defense with Simmons.

But Simmons did fall to the Cardinals at 8, and what mostly started out as praise, suddenly shifted to criticism. Simmons was a great pick for the Giants, Panthers, or Lions. But not great for the Cardinals? The criticism seemed to mostly evolve out of this idea that Simmons was too versatile for Vance Joseph. Essentially, Simmons was a bad pick because he was better than the Arizona Defensive Coordinator. Or better than the defensive scheme? I’m unsure, but either way, spit-take!

The idea that a player could be too good for the scheme was also spread by the Panthers themselves. Passing on Simmons not only shocked analysts but the Panthers fans as well. And when reports came out that it was because “Simmons…was the best pure athlete on the board, but they felt he was a better fit for a veteran team because of his ability to play so many positions,” there sparked a moment of east coast outrage. When is it ever ok to justify passing on better talent because they would be better for a different team? Queue the gasping in Carolina and the cheering in Arizona.

I can understand criticizing a DC. I can also understand criticizing a DC like Vance Joseph who’s defense looked lost most of last season. But to grade a player lower because of the DC, or because the player is too good for your system makes no sense. Which is what we’re going to do today. Today, we try to make sense out of what Isaiah Simmons defensive position may look like in 2020.

Kliff Kingsbury shed some light on the subject with this tweet:

So now the question is, which position will the knife play?

I promise, I’m not coining a nickname. Scouts honor.  

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Slot Corner

Oddly enough, the one position you rarely hear projected for Simmons is slot cornerback. Simmons defensive position is often projected at safety and linebacker, but rarely corner.

What makes this odd is that Simmons lined up 286 times for Clemson in the slot corner position. Considering the strong NFC West division Simmons now finds himself in, should the Cardinals play him in the slot?

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Why would Simmons play in the slot corner defensive position?

As the NFL has developed into a passing league, teams are deploying more 3 and 4 wide receiver sets. And going into the 2020 season it seems this trend is only growing. The 2020 draft had crazy receiver statistics. According to Joe Ferreira:

  • 20% of picks in the first two rounds were wide receivers
  • 15% of all picks in the first 5 rounds were wide receivers
  • 15% of all picks in the entire draft were wide receivers

For perspective, 37 total receivers were drafted compared to 16 running backs, 13 quarterbacks, and 12 tight ends.

Today’s slot receivers are no slouches either. With insane speed and route running abilities, these athletes can hit the tree with precision and quickness requiring a corner that can provide elite man cover and zone fits.

Not to mention how important the slot receiver role has been in the NFC West. The 49’ers have George Kittle, a tight end who lined up in the slot 160 times in 14 games in 2019, and Deebo Samuel, a pure slot receiver who put up 802 yards on 57 receptions with 3 touchdowns in his rookie season. Seattle has Tyler Lockett (1,057/82/8) who is widely considered one of the top slot receivers in the NFL and worked to a perfect passer rating with Russell Wilson in 2018. The Rams have Cooper Kupp (1,161/94/10) and Robert Woods (1,134/90/2). The NFC West is stacked with slot receivers, and considering the division already boasts being the toughest in the NFL, covering the slot is no longer a luxury. It’s a minimum expectation.  

Simmons is fast, closes ground, has phenomenal football IQ, and insane lateral mobility. All of these qualities are great for covering quick receivers on the inside. And given his snap counts at the position in Clemson, the learning curve here would be quick. As great as Kittle, Samuels, Lockett, Kupp, and Woods are, none of them are faster than Simmons. They will have the advantage due to their veteran experience, but Simmons defensive position strengths of speed, IQ, and lateral mobility will go a long way in closing the rookie gap.

Why Simmons won’t play in the slot

The first reason is that Vance Joseph has already said Simmons will be a linebacker. But for those of us paying attention, Joseph also tossed in an asterisk when he said “It’s a lateral, it’s a speed game. It’s a three wide-receiver game. He’s going to have some special roles versus certain opponents that we play.”

Another reason we may not see Simmons in the slot as much as we saw him there in Clemson is due to positional need. Last season the Cardinals depth at the corner was weak. Like, grandma made the coffee weak.

Patrick Peterson, considered one of, if not the best man cover corners in the NFL, was suspended missing the first six games of the season. He wasn’t allowed to use any team facilities during his suspension, so even when he did come back, he was a shell of himself for several weeks simply because he was playing catch up.

Robert Alford broke his leg in training camp and missed the entire season.

The Cardinals were left with rookie cornerback Byron Murphy at CB1. Murphy definitely caught some attention at the position and is poised for a breakout 2020, but he was not your ideal fit for a CB1 in his rookie campaign. I would argue that Murphy will soon be one of the best corners in the NFL, but that’s for a different article at a different time.

With Patrick Peterson and Robert Alford ready to go, Byron Murphy can slide into the CB3 position, and cover those slot receivers. And given that Murphy has the speed and hit stick to lay it down on these quick receivers, it seems safe to assume Murphy as the primary DB in the slot. Which is great news for Vance Joseph and the #RedSea that your primary slot corner is a promising Byron Murphy, and his next in line is Isaiah Simmons. Don’t mind if I do.

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Safety

Safety is one of the most projected positions for Isaiah Simmons in the NFL. Some of this comes from his comparisons to Derwin James, and some of this comes from how effective he was at Safety for Clemson. Shout out to Reddit user u/8BallTiger for picking up on this, but Clemson actually employed the Inverted Tampa 2 defense against pass-heavy offenses with Simmons primarily running safety.

The Tampa 2 defense goes all the way back to Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain, but it wasn’t until the 2002 Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers deployed it as their primary defensive scheme that this defense really became a staple in the NFL. The Bucs modified it from its original usage in Pittsburgh, but essentially the Tampa 2 is a Cover 2 defensive where the middle linebacker drops down the middle on passing plays – similar to a cover 3. The analysis of the Tampa 2 defense is well documented online, so I won’t get into the X’s and O’s, but its application is important for determining how Vance Joseph could deploy his new knife.

Seriously. It’s just easier to type the word knife. I promise.

Why play Simmons at the Safety defensive position?

Brent Venables, the defensive coordinator for the Clemson Tigers put Isaiah Simmons at the Safety defensive position on 218 snaps. This marked the second-most snaps by position for Simmons, trailing only slot corner. The Clemson defense didn’t use Tampa 2 as their base, but they did use it often with Simmons playing safety on a majority of those snaps. Why?

Simple: from the safety position Simmons was available to spy on running backs, spy on quarterbacks, blitz the quarterback, drop into the deep zone, and/or cover the slot on slant routes. When Clemson ran the Tampa 2 with Simmons anywhere other than at Safety, it sometimes blew up. This was on display in the Clemson vs. Ohio State Fiesta Bowl game when JK Dobbins torched the Clemson defense for a 68-yard touchdown run and a 64-yard outside run in the first quarter. Simmons was lined up at cornerback on the touchdown, and outside linebacker on the 64-yard 1st down.

The Cardinals run a 3-4 defense, which seems to be an obvious conflict with a 4-3 base defense until you dive into an inverted Tampa 2. When you invert the Tampa 2 to three defensive lineman, three linebackers, three safeties, and two corners, suddenly that weakness against the rush becomes a strength. The goal is to confuse the offense about what defense they’re looking at and force the game to go into space. With speed on defense and extra safeties and linebackers, you have the speed to completely shut that space down, while still loading the box to shut the run down. That run success suddenly looks like this, notice Simmons defensive position at Safety. And confusing the offense still allows for shut down passing defense like this, again with Simmons defensive position at Safety.

The 49’ers have a strong run game, the Rams have Kupp and Woods on the slant, and Seattle has Russell Wilson always capable of breaking out for a quick 20-yard run. It could benefit the Cardinals to steal a bit from the college game and run an inverted Tampa 2. They have the personnel, and by moving Simmons to safety on these snaps, you would have a defense on the field that could include any combination of Jordan Phillips, Chandler Jones, Jordan Hicks, Budda Baker, Devon Kennard, De’Vondre Campbell, Patrick Peterson, Byron Murphy, Robert Alford and Isaiah Simmons all playing in their natural positions.

Just typing that last sentence gave me goosebumps.

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Why Simmons won’t play Safety

I see three reasons we won’t see Simmons playing safety every snap. One, Vance Joseph wants him at linebacker. Two, you have Pro Bowl Safety Budda Baker out there.

Yes, the abundance of Baker and Simmons at safety would be enviable. But the Cardinal’s defense isn’t good enough to consolidate that much talent every snap. Especially when you consider how weak their linebacker room was last season.

Finally, the inverted Tampa 2 is a good defense, sparingly. One primary goal is to confuse the offense. But confusing an NFL offense is much more difficult than confusing a college offense. It doesn’t mean you absolutely cannot get Russell Wilson second-guessing, but it does mean you have to be selective. If you only ever lineup Simmons at safety when you run those plays, the predictability increases.

Because of these factors, it wouldn’t shock me to see Simmons line up at Safety multiple snaps per game. And when he does, I imagine fans will see some electric defensive plays we haven’t seen since the Honey Badger.  

However, I do not see this being a position of primary abundance for the young first-rounder. More likely safety will be his secondary position.

Outside Linebacker

Simmons lined up as an outside linebacker for 160 snaps with Clemson and will play well there for the Cardinals if/when they line him up on the outside.

The Cardinals put up horrid numbers against tight ends in 2019, documented here and here. It was embarrassing, and honestly, it made fantasy football boring. One of my favorite problems to solve each week was which tight end should I play? What are the matchups? What looks have they received in the red zone? There’s more research involved in trying to hit on a tight end than there usually is in hitting on a running back, and sometimes more so than a receiver.

But in 2019, it felt like the tight end was wiped out of fantasy consideration because it became as simple as “who’s playing the Cardinals?” For daily fantasy it was a no brainer, for traditional fantasy leagues it was a race to the waiver wire – here’s to my waiver claim on Ross Dwelley in week 11.

With such a glaring hole it would make sense for Simmons defensive position to occupy that outside space. But there are reasons why he may not see as many snaps on the outside as he did at Clemson.

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Why play Simmons at the OLB defensive position?

The Cardinals were torched by tight ends in 2019 giving up over 1,100 yards and 16 touchdowns to the position. Those are better numbers than George Kittle puts up in an entire season, which makes it difficult to win ballgames, especially in the NFC West. So the need for a fast, big-bodied linebacker that can drop into coverage on tight ends is important.

It becomes even more important with a 2020 schedule that includes George Kittle, Greg Olsen, TJ Hockensen (who scored two touchdowns against the Cardinals last season), Zach Ertz, Evan Engram, and Tyler Higbee in 9 of their 16 games. Oh yeah, four of those tight ends are projected top 10 NFL tight ends for the 2020 season. Rough.

The outside linebacker is a critical success factor for a 3-4 defense, so it would make sense to put your high ceiling, #8 overall pick at the position. And considering Simmons 4.39 speed, putting him on the outside to pressure the quarterback, to contain the running back, and contain the tight end in space adds even more depth and reason to put Simmons there.  

Why Simmons won’t play OLB

This comes down to one basic fact, the Cardinals are actually strong at outside linebacker. Chandler Jones has 60 sacks, 98 quarterback hits, and 17 forced fumbles since joining the Cardinals.

Chandler Jones also won the 2019 NFC Defensive Player of the Year award, was named first-team All-Pro, and selected to his third Pro Bowl. This is the guy you give one job and one job only – eat quarterbacks. And what may be shocking to some is where Jones ranks for most sacks in the entire NFL over the last five seasons:

  1. Chandler Jones – 72.5
  2. Aaron Donald – 63
  3. Cam Jordan – 58
  4. Khalil Mack – 57.5
  5. Von Miller – 57
  6. Danielle Hunter – 54.5

And that includes Jones switching from 3-4, to 4-3, back to 3-4. He also dropped into coverage on far too many snaps due to poor linebacker depth. Imagine a season where Chandler Jones is tasked with one objective – eat the quarterback.

To make sure Jones can pass rush at the Jack, the Cardinals signed outside linebacker Devon Kennard to play Sam. When you sign a guy to a three year $20-million dollar deal with $12.25-million guaranteed, it isn’t because you’re planning on having him back up a rookie.

Simmons would play well on a Cardinals 3-4 defense in the Jack or Sam positions. Jack and Sam just isn’t the team’s biggest positional need. Simmons defensive position will see time on the outside, but mostly as depth or to confuse an offense. Again, Simmons’s versatility is his biggest strength. I fully expect a Jones/Kennard combination to ravage NFC West offenses on a majority of snaps. Simmons will be the salt and pepper – not too much, not too little, just enough to season it.

Inside Linebacker

The Cardinals defense projects to see Simmons line up as an inside linebacker on a majority of snaps. They lacked depth at the position last year, which was a major contributing factor to their defensive woes. Jordan Hicks had a great year for Arizona in 2019. However, when you run a 3-4 and rely on two inside linebackers on every single snap, it takes a lot more than just one good inside linebacker to stop an offense.

The Cardinals will play seven games against 2019 top 10 offenses. Two against each of the Rams, 49’ers, and Seahawks, and a Prime Time matchup against the Dallas Cowboys. They also get the improved Bills offense and the always lethal Eagles offense. The need to improve this position is vital to a team that could make the playoffs in 2020-2021.

Why play Simmons at the ILB defensive position?

Isaiah Simmons lined up at inside linebacker on 120 snaps for Clemson. Simmons did take fewer snaps inside in 2019, but he was highly effective on the inside and projects well there in the NFL.

Some basic benefits of running a 3-4 defense include putting more speed on the field, getting your best defenders on the field, deceiving and disrupting offensive game planning, and creative blitzing. There is more to it, but these specific strengths of the 3-4 defense also happen to be Simmons’s primary strengths. Speed, high IQ, deceptive, and creative. These also happen to be hallmark strengths of elite inside linebackers.

Positioning Simmons inside has an added bonus for the Cardinals defense. It gets him closer to the line of scrimmage, puts him heads up on tight ends, and gives him the chance to spy on quarterbacks.

Add in the Cardinals new depth at the inside position with Jordan Hicks, Isaiah Simmons, De’Vondre Campbell, Haason Reddick, and Evan Weaver, that inside core is no longer lacking and is now arguably a strength.

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Why Simmons may not play ILB.

I can think of two reasons Isaiah Simmons won’t line up at inside linebacker. The primary reason is matchups.

As we discussed above, there will be times where running Simmons at safety, the slot, or on the outside will put the defense in the best position for important 3rd down stops or red zone efforts. Especially when George Kittle lines up as a receiver. And as Vance Joseph said,

“If it’s a job that we think he can do, we will put him out there. That’s why he was drafted. I want Isaiah to be Isaiah.”

Sometimes Isaiah needs to be a safety, sometimes he needs to spy, and sometimes he needs to blitz.

The second reason is to maximize the new depth Steve Keim built for the defense. As I said earlier, the depth was weak on defense in 2019. Having veteran and rookie players good enough to see meaningful time on the field is an advantage you have to exploit. Depth allows you to confuse defenses all game, as well as to stay fresh for the 4th quarter. Not to mention depth in case of injuries.

*Knocks on wood*

With Simmons defensive position catering to many needs, inside linebacker looks like an exciting place for him to call home.

Summary

Vance Joseph is absolutely on the hot seat. Especially considering how strong the offseason was for building depth on defense. If the defense starts out flat in 2020, it would not shock me to see a change at DC. Vance has the tools, the question is how does he use them? But Vance is not bad enough to downgrade prospect projections, especially for Isaiah Simmons.

Remember, Vance doesn’t have to shut down the NFC West offenses, he just needs to contain them. Kansas City showed that’s all you need to win a Super Bowl. Many of my fellow #redsea members will disagree with me on this point, which is valid. Maybe my optimism is a bit blinding, but I think Vance Joseph is calling the shots on Wildcard weekend.

When the 2020 season comes to an end, and we’re looking back to see how Simmons defensive position impacted his rookie campaign, I’m guessing we’ll see a breakdown that has him playing ILB, with some seasoning at S, SC, and OLB.

In 2019 Simmons spent 36% of his snaps in the slot, 27% at S, 20% at OLB, and 15% at ILB. My prediction is we see the following in the NFL.

  • 75%+ ILB
  • 10% Safety
  • 10% Slot Corner
  • 5% OLB

The biased and emotional fan in me says the Knife will come home with defensive rookie of the year honors. Bold statement, but I am a fan first, analyst second.

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One thought on “Isaiah Simmons: What defensive position will he play for the Arizona Cardinals? Leave a comment

  1. Good article…I look forward to the Cardinals giving “the knife” lots of opportunities to outplay his defensive coordinator 😂😂😂.. this guy’s exciting and I can’t wait to see him in action on the field.

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