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Could Cardinals Benefit From Do-It-All Isaiah Simmons?

Clemson product could provide needed playmaker on defense

Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons is a highly regarded prospect for April's draft.
Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons is a highly regarded prospect for April's draft.

INDIANAPOLIS -- Wearing the "LB" on his shirt, Isaiah Simmons has a specific group within to work at this week's Scouting combine.

But when the Clemson product is asked what position he plays, his answer is succinct: "Defense."

Simmons played every position at times for the Tigers other than the two interior defensive line spots – and the 6-foot-4, 230-pounder played them all well. He doesn't like choosing a favorite role, because "I like getting an interception as much as a sack."

What the Cardinals might like is that ability to do it all, putting Simmons in the mix as a potential target for the No. 8 overall pick. The efforts to move former first-round pick Haason Reddick inside have ended, with Reddick being moved back outside. For a team that has been searching for a rangy playmaker on the defense since losing Daryl Washington in 2014, he might just be that guy.

"If you know who George Kittle and Travis Kelce are, then that explains it all," Simmons said. "Stopping tight ends and linebackers playing man on running backs is … like the game's no longer a 250-pound linebacker. It's more guys that are able to run side to side and are able to cover. It's just a necessity now."

That will be the kind of answer that has to perk the ears of the Cardinals' braintrust when they inevitably meet with Simmons. Covering the tight end – with Kittle a problem twice a season going against the 49ers – was a big issue last season.

But Simmons is also the kind of guy who could slide over and bookend with Chandler Jones to rush the passer some plays. Or drop into the slot to take a back who has motioned out of the backfield.

"The game has changed and specifically that position (of inside linebacker)," Cardinals GM Steve Keim said. "The days of the two-down linebacker don't exist. Those guys almost have to be mirror images of each other."

No one would say Simmons would mirror the guy who he would be playing with, Jordan Hicks. But that was the beauty of Washington, who combined with an at-his-peak Karlos Dansby in 2013 to provide an impactful three-down inside linebacking crew for the Cardinals.

Simmons and Hicks together could also play all three downs, and Simmons' abilities would make it easy to transition between a base and nickel look defensively.

"Whether you want to list him as a linebacker or safety, I know you plug him into (a) defensive scheme and week by week you can deploy him in different ways depending on what the strength of your opponent is," NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. "That's why he has so much value. And putting these guys in little position boxes, I think that's going to go away eventually. You're just going to see getting your athletes on the field and deploying them in different ways on a week-by-week basis."

Simmons shied away from making any one player comp in the NFL. The way he played in college makes it hard. He said he models his game after Von Miller with his edge rushing, Jalen Ramsey with coverage technique, and Tyrann Mathieu with the way the Honey Badger is used all over the back seven (or, with the Cardinals, back eight) of the defense.

The idea the Cardinals might be able to bring in a bigger Mathieu-type player would be intriguing.

"The hardest part about (moving around) is just the mental aspect, having to know what everybody else has to do," Simmons said. "That was the most complicated thing I had to deal with. But I learn everything very fast and I feel like that's what really benefitted me and helped me play at a high level."

Having proven himself mentally capable in college would be another check in Simmons' favor.

"When you look at the big picture and say, 'These are the things you have to do athletically, and here are the things he has to do mentally,' which is process, read, instincts, it's sometimes hard to find the full package," Keim said. "Where I have made my mistakes, where we have made our mistakes, is getting enamored with the physical tools and the ability to do it, but not have the mental capability to do it."

There is risk involved to get a player who doesn't have a defined position. Learning the NFL game is hard enough with just one spot. But Simmons might be a unicorn in this scenario.

"Mentally I feel like there isn't anything I can't do," Simmons said. "I played every position except for a nose or 3-technique. When it comes down to it, I'm going to try with my best ability to do everything I can."

Photos of NFL head coaches and general managers at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis