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Cardinals Draft 'Eraser' Isaiah Simmons With Top Pick

Clemson linebacker figures to have multiple roles on defense

The Cardinals took Isaiah Simmons with their top pick in the 2020 draft.
The Cardinals took Isaiah Simmons with their top pick in the 2020 draft.

Isaiah Simmons was one of the most unique players Cardinals general manager Steve Keim had ever evaluated.

Keim thought that could end up costing the Cardinals a chance to pick him eighth overall Thursday night in the 2020 NFL Draft. Instead, the linebacker slid just enough, thanks to an early run on quarterbacks, and "I felt like it was a pretty easy decision," Keim said.

"He's sort of a Swiss army knife," Keim added. "He does it all. You call that kind of player an 'eraser.' "

The Cardinals are hoping the 6-foot-4, 238-pound Simmons will erase a lot of their defensive shortcomings. They certainly hope Simmons can be a guy to shadow tight ends – a position that accounted for 96 receptions for 1,148 yards and 16 touchdowns against the Cards in 2019.

But he also will likely erase the definition of linebacker – at least when it comes to defining Simmons.

At Clemson last season, Simmons played all over the field. He played safety 218 snaps, slot cornerback 286 snaps, outside linebacker 160 snaps, inside linebacker 120 snaps, perimeter cornerback 17 snaps and rushed the passer 71 times, totaling eight sacks (to go with more than 100 tackles and three interceptions, the first college player with such a trio since Khalil Mack.) He ran a 4.39 40-yard dash at the combine.

"I can be used in a lot of way help the defense in any possible way," Simmons said. "If I need to play safety one week or linebacker one week, rush the passer, I can get all that done.

"People have their own perspectives on it but I feel it is a strength because it creates so much deception on the defense."

Any fear in his pre-draft analysis was that Simmons could play a lot of places but might not have one home on the field. Even Simmons allowed that his role at Clemson was "pretty experimental. We weren't sure if was going to work or not."

But Keim said while there must be a plan for Simmons, "when you evaluate him, that's his strength, his versatility and the things he can do.

"When you have a guy that's this long, this fast and this productive, you just let him go."

Simmons said he isn't opposed to the Cardinals putting him at one spot, but he is "very, very open" to moving around.

"The biggest thing I can said about Isaiah is if you get 53 men on a roster, he's like having 56," Clemson head coach Dabo Sweeney said.

If COVID-19 ultimately wipes out any on-field work in the offseason, it will impact Simmons' immediate impact, coach Kliff Kingsbury acknowledged. But that's the same for any rookie.

Simmons will also benefit because the Cardinals do have legitimate starters across the back seven on defense – they just signed veteran De'Vondre Campbell to a one-year deal to play next to Jordan Hicks at inside linebacker, Simmons' likely eventual home if there is one – that gives defensive coordinator Vance Joseph that much more flexibility with the rookie.

"There will be a little more of a grace period, and move him around and do different things with him because there isn't an extreme need sitting here today where day one he has to make a major impact at a certain position," Kingsbury said.

Keim, not surprisingly, couldn't stop raving about his new defensive piece. Teams did call to inquire about trading with the Cardinals and move up to the eighth spot, but Keim wasn't budging once Simmons fell. In a league where linebackers are often not athletic enough to cover today's tight ends and safeties aren't long enough, Simmons does both.

Keim called him a "gumby doll" athletically, with no stiff movements, elite lateral quickness and "he can run and close like a bullet." It was no wonder he was one of the top talents Keim targeted.

The GM wasn't sure where he might start – dime linebacker, "moe" linebacker, strong safety, somewhere else.

But, Keim said, "he'll find his way on the field, that's for sure."