One of a few first-round linebacker picks Steve Keim made during his run as Cardinals GM, Isaiah Simmons will now head into a contract year. The Cardinals are not exercising Simmons’ fifth-year option, Ian Rapoport of NFL.com reports (on Twitter).
Simmons is likely to remain a starter in Jonathan Gannon‘s system, despite the Cards bringing over ex-Gannon Eagles charge Kyzir White in free agency. But Arizona’s new regime will not give Simmons an eight-figure guarantee for 2024 just yet.
Meeting the participation requirements to land on the option structure’s third tier, Simmons came with a $12.72MM 2024 guarantee. The Cardinals are giving the keys to Gannon and new DC Nick Rallis, and the Vance Joseph-era cog will be given an opportunity to prove himself in the new scheme. With the Cardinals regrouping after a wildly disappointing season and an offseason that brought sweeping changes both on the roster and in the front office, it is unsurprising to see the team punt on this option call.
A coveted prospect out of Clemson, Simmons went eighth overall to the Cardinals in 2020. The college national champion carried a hybrid skillset coming into the league but initially struggled to find a fit with the Cards. The team ended up taking advantage of Simmons’ versatility. Displaying his athletic gifts, the nominal linebacker worked as a slot cornerback on 409 defensive plays last season. Simmons also played 297 snaps in the box, 110 on the defensive line and saw a bit of work as a boundary corner and as a safety. He will be an interesting chess piece for Gannon and Rallis.
Simmons’ versatility led to a 99-tackle, four-sack, two-interception, two-forced-fumble season; he returned one of those picks for a touchdown — a 56-yard score in an October matchup with the Saints. Simmons finished with 105 tackles and four forced fumbles in 2021, providing considerable value during a season in which the Cardinals snapped a lengthy playoff drought and ranked in the top 10 in defensive DVOA. The Cards briefly minimized Simmons’ role last season but quickly restored it, though he will start over with a new staff this year.
The Cards used first-round picks on Simmons and Zaven Collins at linebacker over the past four years. Keim did so after drafting hybrid player Deone Bucannon in the 2014 first round and Haason Reddick, whom the team converted to an off-ball linebacker, in 2017. The Cardinals lost three of their top defenders this offseason, seeing J.J. Watt retire and Byron Murphy and Zach Allen leave in free agency. Murphy followed Joseph to Denver. Simmons could become a cornerstone player under Monti Ossenfort‘s GM regime, but the team will make him prove it.
Simmons would represent an interesting franchise tag case, given his usage across the formation, but if he is classified as a linebacker next year, a tag would be untenable. All linebackers are grouped together under the tag formula, a scenario that helped lead Roquan Smith out of Chicago. Simmons now becomes one of the league’s more interesting contract-year players.