When Isaiah Simmons first met with the new Cardinals coaching staff, the question came early.
"Where do you see yourself?" he was asked. Simmons had a definite answer.
"I told them I didn't want to play linebacker," Simmons said after Monday's practice. "I felt more comfortable getting back to things I had done in the past."
It's easy to see now, in training camp, with Simmons ranging around the secondary. He's played deep safety most often, teaming with Pro Bowler Budda Baker and Jalen Thompson to give the Cardinals their strongest single defensive unit.
Simmons also told head coach Jonathan Gannon and defensive coordinator Nick Rallis he wanted to master one position before working elsewhere, something he said they granted.
"If they came here and said, 'You're going to be a Mike linebacker,' I would've done it to the best of my ability," Simmons said. "I think they understood that maybe the designed position I was supposed to be at, and I'm happy they let me come in and lock in on one position."
At 6-foot-4, it's hard not to notice Simmons in the deep defensive backfield. But at his speed – he ran a 4.39 40 – he's got the range to turn his size and length into a benefit for the Cardinals secondary.
No storyline around Simmons since he arrived in the NFL – or even during the draft process – was bigger than where this unicorn of athletic talent would play.
"He's been reliable back there, which is the first trait of a safety to me," Gannon said. "He's in the right spot all the time. He shows range and some hitting ability, a little bit of coverage ability, downhill striking ability. Long way to go, but I like where he is at."
Gannon said Simmons' size can help "if he plays to his strengths. He realizes how that can help him and also it can hurt him, and make sure we work on those things."
Baker said the direct communication between he and Simmons is naturally better on the field than it was previous just because Simmons is at safety. Before, Baker relayed info to Simmons; now, Simmons is one of the guys who has to pass on the information.
But with all his physical tools, "he brings everything," Baker said.
Simmons hasn't played much deep secondary since he first got to college – he was recruited by Clemson as a safety before he morphed – or perhaps even high school. He said it reminded him of his days playing baseball as a centerfielder, although he acknowledged his baseball career ended when he got to high school. Simmons was a track star, and while the opportunity was there to do both track and baseball in the spring, "that's doing too much," he said with a smile.
A big season is needed; Simmons is going into the last season of his rookie contract after the Cardinals declined his fifth-year option. Simmons insists that isn't motivation; he would try and have his best season regardless.
It's possible Simmons could play some other spots on the field, but he admits he doesn't know if that will happen and the coaches don't know either – or they aren't telling. Simmons said he's quickly picked up what the rest of the secondary is supposed to be doing, which can help him in myriad ways.
Simmons is asked if his versatility might have hurt him in his first three NFL seasons. He chooses his words carefully, although he makes clear he is happy with what he's doing.
"A lot of that had to do with what we were doing on the field, there were times I was playing a position because maybe we were down in injuries, or … there were just certain circumstances that led to me playing certain positions last year as opposed to maybe doing what was best for me," Simmons said.
"Now doing what's best for me is actually best for the team, so I think now why it looks like I feel a little more free, more like myself in my game."
Images from 2023 Cardinals Training Camp at State Farm Stadium