Where Should Isaiah Simmons Line Up In Cardinals Defense?

Photo: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons was the darling of the draft this past April. There have been few athletes (and I specifically use that word to describe him, rather than his position label) like him throughout the course of NFL history—some might even argue he’s one-of-a-kind.

At Clemson, he was listed at the linebacker position in his final season, but he ended up doing a lot more than that. In 2019, on his way to being named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Simmons played 303 snaps at cornerback, 218 at safety, 160 at outside linebacker, and 121 at inside linebacker.

As for the production while moving around that much, well, he had that part down, too. In his 15 games played last season, Simmons recorded 104 total tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks, and three interceptions.

And as for the “athlete” label I gave him in the opening paragraph, Simmons showed up to the NFL Scouting Combine and put on a performance no one will ever forget. The future first-rounder ran a 4.39 40-yard dash, while also jumping 39 inches in the vert and 132 inches in the broad before saying “nah, I’m out”, as if to say to tell world “that’s all my greatness I’ll give you the pleasure of seeing today.”

Simmons’ 6-foot-4, 240-pound size, his versatility, his production, and his athleticism made him one of the most coveted prospects in the class. That’s why the Arizona Cardinals didn’t let him get out of the top 10, selecting Simmons at No. 8 overall.

But where Simmons was highly touted, he wasn’t the first defensive player taken. He was the fourth. Now, I’m not here to hate on Chase Young, Jeffery Okudah or Derrick Brown. Those guys have top talent, too. But none of them presented the versatility Simmons does. So why wasn’t he the first defensive player taken, or even the second? The answer to that question is in the catch-22 of the possibilities in his abilities.

For as natural as Simmons is at the game of football, his fit with each team wasn’t always going to be as natural. There was some projection with what you do with him. Clemson defensive coordinator, Brent Venables, is one of the best in the business at getting the most out of his players; he certainly took that to the highest level with where he aligned Simmons throughout the year. But pro football is different from college football in that it’s very hard for a player, even of Simmons’ athletic caliber, to play with such versatility. 

The game at the pro level moves so fast, and there is such a small margin for error that mastery of one position is often a requirement. Sure, some cornerbacks will have experience both inside in the slot and outside as a boundary player; some defensive backs will have both cornerback and safety duties under their belt. But for a player to be a linebacker and a corner? A linebacker and a corner and a safety? A linebacker, a corner, a safety, and an edge rusher? That just doesn’t happen. Not in the pros.

The bottom line is that less is usually more, even for a player of Simmons’ potential. Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury shared a similar sentiment when discussing their plan of deployment with Simmons post-draft.

"Our thought process is if he is really able to focus on one position, having the flexibility to still move around, but really focus on one, what does that look like?" Kingsbury said. "And the sky can really be the limit.

"That's why we were so excited about him. The athleticism is through the roof. But his ability to play different positions and not really have any chance to focus on one, we just think the sky can be the limit for what he could be if we really lock him into one position the majority of the time."

Scouting is often about looking for examples of successes and failures with certain skill sets and abilities. This is why we love pro player comps so much; they allow us to envision how a strength, a weakness, or a total package of a player can play out at the professional level. But do we even have that with Simmons? Who is an accurate comp for a player with his resume? I mean, I compared him to an Avenger during his combine performance—and I’m not sure how much I was really joking.

When you look at just how diverse Simmons’ alignment history is, the list of potential pro comparisons for him is extremely narrow. According to Pro Football Focus, Simmons was one of just three players in all of college football to record at least 100 snaps at defensive line, in the box, in the slot, and as a deep safety. Over the past two seasons, there are only seven players in the NFL who can say they hit the 100-snap threshold in each of those four areas, with only one of them being from the 2019 season (Malcolm Jenkins).

Two of the players in that list of seven are two names that are often linked to what Simmons can be in the NFL: Jamal Adams and Derwin James. Though both of those players are listed as “safeties” their snap alignments say that they are truly defensive weapons used all over the field.

Of both Adams and James, James presents a more similar body type. James’ 6-foot-2, 220-pound measurables are much closer to Simmons’ 6-foot-4, 240 pounds than Adams’ 6-foot, 215-pound profile. However, where these guys are often compared athletically, Simmons is doing it with 20 more pounds on his body—which only increases the variety of where he can be aligned, even beyond what those two stars do.

But I have my reasons to believe that what Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph plans to do with Simmons won’t be an exact copy of what either James or Adams does. In order to really project the best possible deployment for Simmons, we have to understand the situation he’s coming into.

2019 was Joseph’s first season as the Cardinals’ defensive coordinator after two seasons of being the head coach for the Denver Broncos. Prior to his time in Denver, Joseph was a defensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins in 2016, and was a long-time defensive backs coach around the league before that, dating back to 2006. 

Joseph got his feet wet in the NFL as the defensive backs coach for the 49ers from 2006-2010. During that time, the roots of Joseph’s coaching tree were grounded under two head coaches: Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary. It has been about 10 years since that time, and I’m sure Joseph has learned countless things over the years and adjusted his defense accordingly, but the foundation of your coaching tree often continues to show up in your preferences as a coach, even years later.

When asked about his Niners defense back in 2008, specifically whether or not his team was primarily a 3-4 or a 4-3 team, Singletary mentioned defensive coordinator Greg Manusky liked 3-4 more as a base. As the defensive backs coach at the time, Joseph has taken that scheme with him throughout his coaching career. 

(This all comes back around to Simmons, I promise).

Two parts of Joseph’s background matter when talking about where Simmons might be deployed, and then where he might be deployed best in a Joseph system.

The first is in the fact that the Cardinals are a 3-4 team. Joseph likes the 3-4 system because, like his former bosses Singletary and Manusky, he believes he can have a greater emphasis on the pocket in the pass rush with a 3-4 alignment. In an interview with Arizona Sports 98.7 prior to his first season as defensive coordinator for the Cardinals, Joseph explained more of what he likes in a 3-4.

“When you’re a 4-3 scheme, your four rushers are obvious,” Joseph said. “Offensively, it makes it a little easy, right? They find your best rusher, they scheme it… and it’s done. [With a 3-4] you have to guess—who’s the fourth rusher?”

Joseph loves to dial up the pressure—not just at the pocket, but in all of his defenders’ responsibilities. The 3-4 gives him the most flexibility to do that. He can send more than four players on the blitz with less big-time adjustment, and he can streamline the kind of defensive backs he wants as ones that must be comfortable with man coverage. 

The second part of his background that matters is that he is a former defensive backs coach. Defensive backs are his bread and butter. Joseph’s background hints that his style of defense is an aggressive one; getting multiple rushers on the field, keeping the defense guessing, and pairing that with aggressive man coverage on the outside. He explained more on that later in the interview with Arizona Sports 98.7.

“To find someone opposite of Pat [Peterson] to [play man-to-man], and then rush five or six guys, now you’re playing defense on your terms,” Joseph said. “That’s the way you beat the explosive offenses.”

The player they chose to play opposite Peterson was free agent Robert Alford. Alford signed a 3-year, $22.5 million deal last offseason, a move that Joseph certainly either orchestrated or was an important voice of.

Now, the Cardinals’ defense really struggled last season, but where there were a handful of reasons for that, you have to pass the cornerback blame off of Joseph a bit. Patrick Peterson, who was slated to be the star shutdown cornerback—a player Joseph said would shadow opposing teams’ No. 1 receivers—was suspended for the first six games of the season. During the suspension he wasn’t allowed to use any team facilities either, so him coming in midway through the year was the first time he was getting comfortable with a brand new defense and new defensive coordinator. And on top of that, Alford broke his leg in training camp and missed the entire season.

With their top two cornerbacks down (in a scheme that really depends on those positions), that left a lot of pressure on two players: second-round rookie cornerback Byron Murphy and third-year safety Budda Baker.

Under Joseph’s teaching (former defensive backs coach remember), Murphy took his lumps as a rookie playing CB1 for an aggressive 3-4 team, but gained valuable experience and improved as the year went on. And as for Baker, well, he had a career year as a first-time free safety in Joseph’s defense, leading the NFL in tackles for a safety, and earned his second Pro Bowl honor. Moving forward, with a healthy Peterson and Alford, I believe the Cardinals have their top two guys on the outside to play aggressive man coverage, a now very experienced nickel corner in Murphy, and an already successful free safety player in Baker. The cornerstones of the defensive back group are in place.

All of that matters for Simmons because while I think he will take pieces of James and Adams’ games into his own, making his home at safety like the other two seems like a waste of potential impact, at least in this defense that already seems to have its secondary set up. I believe Joseph has a stronger desire to get Simmons involved in more aggressive ways closer to the box, and I believe he thinks he already has the secondary he wants.

Now that I’ve ruled out safety (can’t wait for Simmons to line up at safety on his first snap and I just delete this whole article), let’s talk about the alignments I could see Simmons having the most success with playing in Joseph’s system, and discuss which is most plausible as a “home” position.

By crossing off slot corner and safety, there are really two positions left to discuss: outside linebacker and inside linebacker.

In a 3-4 defense, you can use the extra linebacker in a variety of ways. You can use them as a hybrid player who plays off the edge but also in coverage, or you can use them as essentially a 5-man front as your base.

When it comes to outside linebackers in Joseph’s 3-4 defense, this is primarily a player who consistently brings pressure on the pocket as an added rusher. Terrell Suggs was the main outside linebacker opposite Chandler Jones in the Cardinals’ defense. According to Pro Football Focus, the Cardinals had the third-highest blitz percentage in the league when bringing added pressure (five or more). That was generally with both Suggs and Jones rushing off the edge, along with the three down linemen taking up blocks and gaps. 

Suggs is no longer on the roster, so naturally the question is asked whether or not this could be Simmons’ destination, as Joseph clearly puts an emphasis on attacking the pocket. 

While Simmons can be a good pass-rusher and edge presence, I don’t see him playing this role as a home base in Joseph’s 3-4. Some will point to Von Miller as the WILL outside backer in Denver under Joseph’s coaching and say that Miller’s 6-foot-3, 249-pound measurables are similar to that of Simmons. However, first of all, Miller is one of the top edge rushers in NFL history, and second, Miller’s “role” in Joseph’s defense is being occupied by Jones. He’s doing a damn good job of it, as evidenced by his 19 sacks in 2019.

Instead, the current open outside linebacker role in Arizona is the heavier one, the one occupied by Suggs last year in Arizona, and Bradley Chubb in 2018 and Shane Ray in 2017 in Denver. These guys are 255-265 pounds. Asking Simmons to be opposite Jones, while fun, and could be the case for a handful of plays, wouldn’t be the best use of what makes him a rare prospect in general or as a piece for this Cardinals defense.

That leaves on position: inside linebacker. 

The most pressing need for the Cardinals’ defense, outside of their secondary staying healthy, is without a doubt how they cover tight ends while staying aggressive against the pocket.

How did that work in 2019: it didn’t.

 The Cardinals were one of the worst teams in the NFL when covering opposing team’s tight ends. Through the first three games of the season, the Cardinals defense gave up 348 yards and five touchdowns on 23 catches to tight ends. In total, Arizona’s defense gave up 15 touchdowns to tight ends in 2019.

A 4-3 defense is more controlled. Generally you have a more straightforward approach, which makes things less confusing for the offense to diagnose pre-snap, but it also protects you against defensive confusion and extreme mismatches that don’t go your way. The idea of a 3-4 is to get more speed on the field. Joseph likes to play his defense aggressive and fast, hence the preference to the scheme, but in 2019 he did not have a player who could exist in his defense that could cover opposing teams’ tight ends.

Arizona hosted the Detroit Lions for the first game of the season, and with it came the beginning of their tight end woes. In their opening matchup, the Cardinals allowed rookie tight end T.J. Hockenson to catch six passes on nine targets for 131 receiving yards and a touchdown. That game was by far the most productive outing of the rookie’s first year in the league, and coming in his first game is not a good look for the Cardinals.

The player in coverage in the clip above was Cardinals’ inside linebacker Jordan Hicks. Hicks was given tight end responsibilities often during the early portions of the season, and the results were not pretty.

In Week 3, the Cardinals hosted the Carolina Panthers, and were once again burned by the opposing offense’s tight end, this time being Greg Olsen. The veteran tight end caught six of his seven targets for 75 yards and two touchdowns that day, and once again it was inside linebacker Hicks who just couldn’t keep up in coverage.

It became clear early on that Hicks couldn’t keep up with tight ends in man coverage, which is not great when you’re as aggressive at the pocket as the Cardinals were in 2019, and as Joseph appears to be in his preferred state. Remember, last season the Cardinals had the third-highest percentage in the NFL of snaps where they sent extra pressure.

The goal of sending extra pressure is that you’re either getting to or affecting the quarterback faster than normal. The end result sounds good, but it comes at a price. For every player you send at the pocket, that’s one less player you can use in coverage. So when you send extra players, that brings the demand for close coverage higher. When you take too many players off coverage duties (sometimes even just one), depending on who is in your coverage personnel, you may be stretching zones too deep or too wide, therefore creating holes for receivers to sit in and windows for the quarterback to hit (even if it’s fast with the extra pressure).

A way you can get around this is by playing more close man coverage. If you play close man coverage, the natural separation is smaller at the snap, and if your players can theoretically stick on their assignment for just three seconds, the added pressure should be able to get to the quarterback before a play can be made.

As a team that throws a lot of players at the pocket like the Cardinals do, they, in turn, have to ask their coverage players to either hold up in man coverage or be able to cover more ground in zone coverage. 

Hicks made it clear early on that he couldn’t keep up in man coverage, and against Olsen he also made it clear that his zone coverage range wasn’t where it needed to be either.

The following week, the Cardinals faced off against divisional foe the Seattle Seahawks. Seahawks tight end Will Dissly, who recorded just 289 receiving yards in his entire college career at Washington, caught seven of his eight targets for 57 yards and touchdown against the Cardinals. With all due respect to Dissly, if the Seahawks knew the Cardinals’ coverage of tight ends was so bad they could make Dissly an emphasis in their game plan, that’s bad.

Finally, let’s look at how the Cardinals fared when facing one of the top tight ends in the game, George Kittle of the San Francisco 49ers.

Now, you might be thinking, “Trev, we get it. Why do you have to be so cruel as to show the Kittle footage? We know it won’t be pretty.”

You’re right, it isn’t pretty, but I have to show this because the Cardinals are in a division with Kittle. They’re also in a division with Tyler Higbee of the Los Angeles Rams, and Olsen, who is now on the Seahawks. They’ll see each of those tight ends twice a year, at minimum. They’re also in a conference with Rob Gronkowski, Jared Cook, and Zach Ertz. And if they happen to make it to the Super Bowl, they might just be facing Travis Kelce.

The main message here is that covering receiving tight ends in today’s NFL is paramount to success, and not only were the Cardinals bad at it in 2019, but they are on a road where they have to consistently face some of the best.

The play above was Hicks in coverage once again, which, to his defense, Joseph was asking insufficient athletes to keep up in man coverage. Hicks just isn’t built for that role in Joseph’s defense—however, he was often the only option they had.

Now, the Cardinals didn’t always have Hicks or other less qualified linebackers on opposing team’s tight ends. They certainly knew they weren’t covering that responsibility well and made adjustments.

Their highest rate of coverage success against the position came when they allowed one of their safeties, Budda Baker or D.J. Swearinger, to play man coverage against them. Baker was the player in coverage in the clip above against Olsen, and it yielded a favorable result. But the problem is Baker can be even more valuable to the Cardinals if he’s used as a free safety on the back end. The Cardinals knew this, and knowing Swearinger is much more of a strong safety than a deep safety, they tried to get away with putting him on tight ends to free up Baker being able to play more in space.

The results of that, where better than they were when Hicks was in man coverage, but still were not what they needed to be—the Cardinals couldn’t justify the pressure they were bringing because they didn’t have the means to not get exploited by opposing tight ends.

This led to all kinds of uncomfortable play-calling and player deployment by the Cardinals’ defense throughout the season. At a point, they started rushing only three players as a primary look on passing downs, something they weren’t built for. Playing in a 3-4, especially with the aggressiveness Joseph likes to play from it, has a very small margin for error. If you have one weak link, the whole defense gets exposed.

This—all of this—is why I see Simmons finding his home as a linebacker. Playing linebacker allows him to be used on the blitz, which we know Joseph likes to do, it allows him to use his range to always fly to the ball in pursuit against the run, but most importantly, it gives the Cardinals that much-needed tight end neutralizer in coverage.

The Cardinals did beef up their linebacker room this offseason adding De’Vondre Campbell and Evan Weaver to a group that already had Hicks and Haason Reddick. But if you ask me, all of them are simply fighting for the other inside linebacker spot in the Cardinals’ 3-4 defense. The one Simmons can occupy should be one-man deep on the depth chart. 

When asked about Simmons’ potential role on the team during the offseason, Joseph seemed to have an open mind about it by stating, "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."

For his Cardinals defense, the “ISAIAH” position is the one they’ve needed the most, addressing their greatest weakness with one of the best options they could ask for.