GLENDALE — It’s the question that’s been asked since the Arizona Cardinals drafted him No. 8 overall in the 2020 NFL Draft: What position will Isaiah Simmons play?
Linebacker? Safety? A hybrid of both?
Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph on Saturday called the third-year pro a “star backer,” meaning he is capable of playing at multiple spots such as linebacker, safety and dime depending on the scheme and game plan for that particular week.
“He’s playing well, but we’ll see,” Joseph said. “That’s what camp is for — to kind of figure out how far we can go with him playing certain spots. So right now, we’re just reaching for the stars and hope it’s good enough.”
“In this scheme, it can be a lot of places. … We’ll see,” Joseph added. “It depends on a game plan.”
The 6-foot-4, 238-pound Simmons was technically used predominantly as a linebacker during open practice on Saturday, the first in which Cardinals fans could watch in attendance at State Farm Stadium.
However, Simmons’ athleticism in the slot allows Joseph to play his base 4-3 scheme even when the offense is in three- and four-receiver sets without having to sacrifice a linebacker for a cornerback on the field.
During Saturday’s practice, for example, Joseph was able to use a base 4-3 formation against the Cardinals’ first-team offense in a three-receiver set while keeping two high safeties because Simmons has the athletic ability to keep up stride for stride with slot wide receivers — unlike most linebackers.
Joseph compared Simmons to former NFL safety Taylor Mays, who the current Cardinals DC coached during his time with the San Francisco 49ers (2010) and Cincinnati Bengals (2014).
“They’re very similar. They’re not quite backers, not quite safeties,” Joseph said. “They’re kind of star players — big, fast guys who can cover, play half, who can blitz. … (Simmons) is special because he can do things that other guys can’t do as far as covering.
“He’s a big man who can tackle, run and chase, he can blitz, he could play that edge. But also he’s covered guys in the slot like CeeDee Lamb and those guys and he likes it. That’s different from most linebackers.”
Joseph hopes that opposing offenses will have to game plan around Simmons, but the defensive coordinator also realizes that it’s entirely possible to ask too much of a single player.
“Practice as you install and game plans are so different. Game plans are tight,” Joseph said. “Installs in practice get to be much. Right now we’ve got four installs and everything’s in right now.
“It’s a lot of defense in five days, but games are really tight. It’s first-, second-down packages — eight, nine calls. Third down — four, five calls and red zone. So games are really easier than practice.”
Joseph said that Simmons’ numbers were “off the charts” last season, but did add that he gave up too many plays and the next evolution in his development will be limiting those.
“I think Isaiah is on his way to being a great player,” Joseph said. “He still has to obviously keep honing his skills and keep growing his football IQ.”