As defensive coordinator Vance Joseph has taken outside criticism for how he’s developed rookie Isaiah Simmons, the Arizona Cardinals have won games and bided their time without putting too much on their first-round pick.
They gave Simmons unique packages but behind the scenes have pushed him to learn inside linebacker. But real snaps have been hard to come by behind Jordan Hicks and De’Vondre Campbell, at least until Campbell went down with a calf injury Sunday in a 32-30 win over the Buffalo Bills.
Simmons has played a career-high 32 snaps in each of the past two weeks, and just more than halfway through a coronavirus-altered rookie year, the No. 8 pick in 2020 might be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
“It’s been two weeks in a row where he’s playing like an NFL linebacker. He’s playing some nickel, he’s covering receivers,” Joseph said. “To his credit, he’s been patient — he’s been frustrated — but he’s been patient in waiting his turn and learning and working in practice. It’s showing in the games. We’ve got to play him more because he can help us win.
“He’s been patient to wait his turn, but it’s time.”
Simmons has been used as a gadget player in spurts, rushing the passer in third down packages or stepping to the line of scrimmage before bailing into coverage. He’s played like a slot cover man and even at MIKE in some instances.
In 64 snaps over the past two weeks of play, he has eight tackles, one for loss and one quarterback hit.
After knocking down Bills quarterback Josh Allen during a throw on Sunday, Simmons got up, got hit by his own teammate, got up again, and chased down an incredibly completed dump-off to running back Devin Singletary for a tackle for loss.
The Cardinals have noticed Simmons is coming on and pushing past the frustrating start. Outside linebacker Haason Reddick, a fourth-year pro who knows all too well about the requirement of a first-round pick to be patient, saw something in Simmons change last week that struck him.
“Last week, man, he came in and stepped up and balled,” Reddick said. “I told him, ‘That’s what it’s about.’
“He looked at me and said, ‘Haas, I can do this.’ And right then and there, I knew he was confident in himself, I knew he still believed in himself. I’m glad to see that out of him.”
While Hicks and Campbell have been in Simmons’ way in terms of the rookie earning playing time, Joseph said that pair and Reddick have played important roles keeping Simmons focused on learning the most complex defensive position.
All of them have preached patience.
Joseph said he’s seen “the life come back in Isaiah” as Simmons has earned more snaps.
Simmons has played more of late because, well, it took half a season to develop a player who in college played a new position every week.
“You watch him play now, I mean, he knows what to do. He’s sure … You see why Steve Keim drafted this guy in the top-10,” Joseph said. “Before that, you saw a guy who was uncertain and wasn’t sure that he knew what to do, so he couldn’t play fast. Even with his teammates now, he’s more open, he’s more funny. He’s just involved with his teammates more because he’s having a chance to be a part of with this team.
“It’s tough for a first-round pick to be drafted so high to come to a team and not be able to play — and to watch other first-round picks do play and have success. It’s been hard for him. He’s definitely back. He’s coming out of his shell a little bit.”