Isaiah Simmons in the Slot Has To Be the Exception, Not the Rule

Isaiah Simmons
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In the wake of Malcolm Butler’s untimely retirement, the Arizona Cardinals are facing the latest in a long line of cornerback issues this off-season. Butler, projected to be Arizona’s number one corner, has left a hole that the Cardinals will have to fill. Moving star Byron Murphy to the outside has been suggested, as has an increased role for rookie Marco Wilson. However, one of the more eye-catching rumors is that Arizona could deploy sophomore linebacker Isaiah Simmons in the slot. As the season opener against the Tennessee Titans rapidly approaches, the Arizona Cardinals must consider every possibility to solve their problems at cornerback.

Isaiah Simmons in the Slot Should Remain the Exception, Not the Rule

Simmons in the Slot Is a Luxury, Rather Than a Necessity

The Cardinals have lost their number one corner in Malcolm Butler. However, they have an exciting array of talent to experiment with before shoehorning Simmons into the secondary. This off-season, defensive coordinator Vance Joseph was bullish in his praise of third-year corner Byron Murphy, anointing Murphy as the team’s best cornerback. Performances throughout training camp have cemented Murphy’s status as a rising star within the Cardinals organization. During his time in Arizona, Murphy has thrived in the slot for the Cardinals. However, although the prevalence of 3WR sets essentially makes the slot corner a starting position, in 2020, in base sets, featuring only two cornerbacks, Murphy would come off the field; Murphy was very much considered the team’s third cornerback. Now, as Arizona’s best cornerback, Murphy will remain on the field at all times. Murphy will play on the outside in 2021; Malcolm Butler’s departure only confirms this further.

Murphy earned his increased role even before Butler’s retirement. However, the loss of Butler may have dramatically changed the fate of Marco Wilson. Despite slipping to Day 3 in the draft, Marco Wilson looks to be an absolute steal in the fourth round. A freshman starter at Florida, Wilson has revered SEC pedigree and has been a highlight of Arizona’s off-season program, rising from a special teamer to a potential role player on defense. Wilson also has a vote of confidence from his head coach Kliff Kingsbury. Therefore, Cardinals fans should expect Wilson to play a far more prominent role than initially expected.

Don’t Spread Simmons’ Talent Too Thinly

Speaking in the off-season, linebackers coach Bill Davis reiterated that, in 2021, inside linebacker will be ‘home base’ for Isaiah Simmons. According to Davis, Simmons played up to a ‘half dozen’ different positions in 2020. Developing Simmons as an inside linebacker, as well as his relationship with Zaven Collins, is integral; the Cardinals must focus on utilizing the range of Simmons’ abilities from this spot, rather than compartmentalizing his talents to various positions.

This off-season, some questions were raised about Simmons’ progress at the position. Critics pointed towards his poor, sometimes hesitant play against the run in the preseason. Speculation about Simmons’ future as an inside linebacker further fueled rumors that he might be shifted into the secondary. Echoing coach Davis, Isaiah Simmons will be an inside linebacker in 2021. Granted, he will be an inside linebacker who may briefly masquerade as a safety or corner, but the Cardinals drafted Simmons and Collins to be a complimentary duo at the core of Arizona’s defense. It is only by continuing to develop Simmons at inside linebacker will the Cardinals realize their dream for the pair.

Situational Deployment Will See Simmons in the Slot

Keeping Simmons grounded as an inside linebacker is important. Yet, it is a disservice to his skills to limit him to a traditional linebacker role. In addition, using Simmons in the slot in the NFL currently makes sense for the Cardinals. However, Simmons’ versatile usage will be situational, rather than personnel-related; moving Simmons around is to utilize his talents best, not to plug gaps.

Simmons in the slot will be the exception this season, but the season opener at Tennessee might be that exception. Moving Simmons into the slot bolsters Arizona’s secondary against the run, as well as helping with their issues at cornerback. It allows Murphy to slide to the outside and adds significant size to an otherwise undersized group, set to face two bigger receivers in Julio Jones and A.J. Brown. The potency of Tennessee’s running game, particularly the outside zone scheme, similarly justifies using Simmons to bolster Arizona’s secondary.

Isaiah Simmons in the slot also allows Vance Joseph to get more linebackers on the field to combat this rushing threat. Joseph can experiment with a rumored sub-package designed to get the once-ostracized Jordan Hicks on the field with both Simmons and Collins. Hicks can provide further run support, as well as offering a veteran presence for young signal-caller Collins.

The Cardinals have a potentially game-changing player in Isaiah Simmons. He will be used in a variety of different looks, from the secondary to outside linebacker, to take full advantage of his talent. However, moving Simmons around too much threatens the organization’s projection for the inside linebacker tandem of Simmons and Collins. Simmons’ deployment around the defensive unit cannot compromise his development as an inside linebacker.

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