The Cardinals are starting to look like a legitimate NFL franchise again.
Don’t misconstrue that as “the Cardinals are back” or “the Cardinals are a contender.”
Not yet, at least.
But when Arizona drafted Clemson do-it-all defender Isaiah Simmons with the No. 8 pick in Thursday’s NFL draft, it was another sign that the franchise is making smart moves.
In my column earlier this week, I said the Cardinals should absolutely draft Simmons or Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah over an offensive lineman if either fell to them at No. 8.
Okudah was nowhere close, as the Lions took him at No. 3. But somehow, someway, Simmons fell to No. 8. And Cardinals GM Steve Keim didn’t hesitate.
Simmons is a freak of an athlete and can play multiple positions, a true Swiss Army knife player. At Clemson, he played linebacker, safety and slot corner, and he excelled no matter where he lined up.
“We call that kind of player an eraser this league,” Keim said after making the selection. “Felt like it was a pretty easy decision.”
Arizona needs to bolster its offensive line, but it ranked last in the NFL in total defense and 28th in scoring defense in Kliff Kingsbury’s first year as coach.
Simmons is like a magic elixir that will cure multiple ailments on the Cardinals defense.
Just how versatile and dominant of a defender is Simmons?
Last season, he recorded at least 100 tackles (104), 16 tackles for a loss (16.5), 8.0 sacks (8.0) and multiple interceptions (3) — the first FBS player to accomplish that since Khalil Mack did it at Buffalo in 2013.
Khalil Mack is one of the most dominant players in the NFL. He wrecks game plans.
But for my money, an even better comparison for who Simmons resembles is Hall of Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher of the Chicago Bears.
They are both 6-foot-4, rangy guys with positional versatility and explosive athleticism. Urlacher was a safety in college at New Mexico before he transitioned to linebacker in the NFL. That worked out well for Chicago.
This kind of “eraser,” as Keim puts it, is exactly the kind of player the Cardinals have targeted, with success, in the last several seasons.
In 2014, Keim drafted Washington State’s Deone Bucannon in the first round. Bucannon lined up mostly at linebacker and safety but was used all over the field. He was a key contributor on good Cardinals defenses from 2014-17.
Then of course there is the Honey Badger, Tyrann Mathieu. An incredibly talented and instinctual player in college at LSU, Mathieu was also considered a troubled player with baggage.
The Cardinals gambled by drafting Mathieu in the third round in 2013, and he immediately blossomed into one of the most valuable defensive players in the league.
After playing his first five seasons with Arizona, Keim made one of his worst moves as GM by cutting a 25-year-old Mathieu after the 2017 season. Mathieu won a Super Bowl title with the Chiefs last season.
But Keim clearly has an eye for these versatile, “positionless” players.
The Cardinals GM expects Simmons will play linebacker and safety with Arizona. Some draft analysts say the lack of one definable position is a weakness for Simmons. I consider it a strength, and so does Keim.
Here’s the position he will play: stopper. He will stop the run when necessary. He will stop the pass when necessary. He will spy the quarterback when necessary.
In the NFC West, Simmons will be asked to cover tight ends like George Kittle and Tyler Higbee, and to a certain extent, help with coverage on receivers like DK Metcalf and Cooper Kupp. He may need to chase down Russell Wilson on a scramble.
At 6-4, 240 pounds, Simmons is a phenomenal athlete. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds and had a 39-inch vertical jump at the combine.
After drafting quarterback Kyler Murray last year and trading for wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins last month, Arizona started showing the NFL that it isn’t far away from being a playoff contender.
Arizona still has several needs on both sides of the ball.
But having Simmons makes the Cardinals significantly better on defense. Plug him in day one, and watch him make an immediate impact.