Arizona Cardinals Rookies Forecast

By Charlie Campbell – @draftcampbell

Solid Starter

Josh Jones, OT, Houston – Round 3
The Cardinals were in need of offensive line help entering the 2020 NFL Draft, and they were fortunate that Jones fell to their third-round pick. His skill set and talent level said he belonged on Day 2, but many felt he could be a late first-round pick because of need at the tackle position around the league. Arizona re-signed Marcus Gilbert, but he has been hurt constantly in recent years and the team needed a long-term starter at right tackle. Jones may not start immediately, but over time, I think he could become their starting tackle.

Jones is a good athlete for blocking on the edge in pass protection. He has agility with size and good enough feet to take on edge rushers. With his athleticism, quickness and feet, Jones has starting potential with the ability to defend speed rushers off the edge. There are some parts of Jones’ technique that he could work to improve on for the pros, as sometimes he can bend a little at the waist, and in the NFL, it will hurt him to be sloppy by bending at the waist rather than the knee. Adding strength is necessary to help Jones sustain blocks and give him a stronger base to handle edge rushers. However with his natural pass-blocking skills, Jones has starting potential for the next level.

As a run blocker, Jones is below average for the NFL at this time. He is not overpowering. In college, he got away with using his mass to manipulate and lean on defenders in his weak college competition, but that will be much less effective against pro defensive linemen. For the next level, Jones needs to get stronger or he won’t be a good contributor in the ground game. Jones dropped weight prior to his senior year, which helped his conditioning but hurt his strength at the point of attack. Thus, Jones needs developmental time in the weight room.

It might best for Jones to start out his career as a backup, but he has the ability to work his way into being a starting offensive tackle for Arizona. He could turn into a solid right tackle.

2019: Zach Allen, DE
2018: Christian Kirk, WR
2017: Budda Baker, S
2016: Evan Boehm, C
2015: Markus Golden, LB
2014: Deone Bucannon, S
2013: Kevin Minter, LB

Most Likely To Bust

Leki Fotu, DT, Utah – Round 4
Steve Keim is fortunate that he is still the general manager of the Cardinals because he has blown a lot of early-round picks in recent years. I was on the money about Haason Reddick, Robert Nkdemiche and Kareem Martin having bust potential. D.J. Humphries has been okay, but not as good as you would expect for a first-round offensive tackle. I could be wrong about Kyler Murray being the most likely to bust from 2019, but after one season, it is far too early to render judgement in either direction. This year was a more difficult choice because the Cardinals were without a second-round pick. Fotu stood out to me as being risky, but considering he was a fourth-round pick that is not a true bust as the majority of fourth-rounders don’t stick in the NFL.

I selected Fotu because I did not think that Isaiah Simmons or Josh Jones had serious bust potential, whereas Fotu enters the league with obvious limitations. He is big and strong at the point of attack, but he offers very little in the pass rush. The 6-foot-4, 330-pounder is just a run-stuffing nose tackle, and those players can have a difficult time avoiding becoming journeyman in the passing-driven NFL. With Fotu not being a pass rusher, I think he is the riskiest of the Cardinals’ early-round picks.

2019: Kyler Murray, QB
2018: Mason Cole, C
2017: Haason Reddick, LB
2016: Robert Nkemdiche, DL
2015: D.J. Humphries, OT
2014: Kareem Martin, DE
2013: Tyrann Mathieu, CB/S

Potential Boom Pick

Isaiah Simmons, LB, Clemson – Round 1
General manager Steve Keim has a bad track record of drafting prospects who are better athletes than players – Robert Nkemdiche, Haason Reddick, D.J. Humphries, etc. -, so that makes Arizona’s selection of Simmons a bit scary. However, I think Simmons is a better player than those other players and believe that defensive coordinator Vance Joseph knows what he is doing and will utilize Simmons well. If he does, Simmons definitely has boom potential for the NFL.

The first trait that stands out about Simmons is his instinctiveness. He is very impressive with how quickly he anticipates what an offense is trying to do and gets in position to contribute to stopping the play. Defensive coaches in the NFL have a term called “fire your gun,” which is when a player makes a decision to come downhill or chase down a ball-carrier. Simmons is very good at deciding when to fire his gun rather than biting on misdirection. He makes wise choices on when to go after the ball-carrier and not get caught out of position.

With the NFL a passing-driven league, defenses need linebackers who are capable of contributing to pass coverage. Simmons is that kind of linebacker, as he is a true asset to defend passing attacks while also being a good run defender in the middle of the field. While he has the size of a linebacker, Simmons has the cover skills of a safety, and he does some very unique things in pass coverage. Thus, he is a rare and elite sub-package linebacker for the NFL.

Simmons was the best pass-coverage linebacker in the 2020 NFL Draft. He is a fast linebacker who covers a lot of ground in zone coverage while also showing the ability to run down the middle seam. During the 2019 season, Simmons showed great speed to run with slot receivers downfield, and it was incredible to see him run stride-for-stride with those wideouts.

As a pro, Simmons should be a nice asset to cover tight ends running vertically down the middle of the field, running backs leaking out of the backfield, and he also should be a good defender to help with receivers crossing the middle of the field. He won’t hesitate to get physical and can be a hard-hitting enforcer in the middle of the field. On top of being able to cover up receivers, Simmons has good ball skills for a linebacker, possessing an ability to take the ball away. He is smart and instinctive to get in throwing lanes and disrupt passes. Simmons’ pass coverage is his best trait, and he should be an asset in coverage quickly in his NFL career.

On top of Simmons being very good in coverage, he also is a dangerous blitzer with closing speed to hunt down quarterbacks. He could even get some consideration as an outside edge rusher in obvious passing situations.

As a run defender, Simmons combines instincts with explosive speed to cover sideline-to-sideline. He chases down ball-carriers while having the size and strength to handle big backs. Tackling is becoming a lost art in college and NFL football, as the reduction in practices and the limitations on how physical practices can be has led to defensive players not being as technically sound at tackling. Simmons is an exception to the trend as he is a very good tackler doing an excellent job of tackling low and wrapping up whoever has the ball. While he will dish out some big hits, he does not miss tackles at the expense of pummeling a ball-carrier.

In the ground game, Simmons has excellent speed to close, is able to change direction to redirect, and is bolt of lightning to the flat on perimeter runs. He can read plays quickly and explodes downhill to make tackles near the line of scrimmage, in the backfield, or disrupt the run to set up teammates for a stop near the line of scrimmage. The one real negative for Simmons for the NFL is taking on and shedding blocks. He is going to have problems with that at the next level. Simmons will need to work to get better at taking on and shedding blocks when runs come downhill straight at him, but that is case for almost all college linebackers going to the NFL.

The Cardinals need to improve their defensive line talent in front of Simmons to help him out, but in Arizona, I believe that Simmons could be a star defender in Vance Joseph’s defense.

2019: Byron Murphy, CB
2018: Josh Rosen, QB
2017: Chad Williams, WR
2016: Brandon Williams, CB
2015: David Johnson, RB
2014: Troy Niklas, TE
2013: Jonathan Cooper, G

Future Depth Player

Eno Benjamin, RB, Arizona State – Round 7
Benjamin was a tough runner for Arizona State over the past two seasons, and it was a surprise that he slid all the way to the seventh round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Benjamin’s best season came as a junior in 2018 when he took on a big work load of 300 carries that he turned into 1,642 yards – 5.5 average – with 16 touchdowns. He also caught 35 passes for 263 yards and two touchdowns. His numbers were down as a senior when defenses loaded up the box, but Benjamin could be a nice backup running back in the NFL with his receiving skill set to contribute on third downs as well. Benjamin is a good fit for the Cardinals’ offense as well. For a late-round pick, Benjamin could be a nice value selection who ends up become a contributing backup for Arizona.

2019: Deionte Thompson, S
2018: Chase Edmonds, RB
2017: Will Holden, OT
2016: Harlan Miller, CB
2015: Rodney Gunter, DT
2014: Ed Stinson, DE
2013: Ryan Swope, WR

Walt’s 2020 NFL Draft Grades:

8. Isaiah Simmons, LB, Clemson – A Grade
I had Isaiah Simmons slotted to the Cardinals forever, but moved him the day prior to the draft. It just made too much sense. Arizona was torched by tight ends week after week last year. They really needed to find a player who could help put a stop to that, and Simmons is the answer. Simmons will be able to play all over the Cardinals’ defense and help them immensely.

72. Josh Jones, OT, Houston – A+ Grade
Wow, what a steal. Josh Jones could have been chosen late in the first round, or early in the second frame at the latest. I didn’t think the Cardinals would go tackle at No. 8 because they re-signed both players at the position, but they needed an insurance policy for Marcus Gilbert. This is an excellent pick.

114. Leki Fotu, DT, Utah – B Grade
Leki Fotu doesn’t offer anything as a pass rusher, but that doesn’t matter very much in the fourth round. Fotu is a stout run plugger, which is something the Cardinals needed to help defend San Francisco’s ground-heavy attack.

131. Rashard Lawrence, DT, LSU – B Grade
Rashard Lawrence was very inconsistent at LSU, but he flashed his potential at times. The Cardinals have been trying to replace Calais Campbell for years. They’ll be hoping Lawrence can live up to his potential to be that guy, but I wouldn’t be so optimistic. Still, Lawrence is a decent gamble at this juncture.

202. Evan Weaver, LB, California – B Grade
Evan Weaver is a very smart and instinctive linebacker. Unfortunately, he may not have the athleticism to make it in the NFL. He should be able to help on special teams, at the very least. I wouldn’t bet against Weaver though, so I think this is a fine choice.

222. Eno Benjain, RB, Arizona State – B+ Grade
I wasn’t a fan of Eno Benjamin when I thought teams might take him in the fourth round. He’s a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none back, but he’s a solid value in the seventh frame. He could end up becoming a decent backup for Arizona.

2020 NFL Draft Team Grade: A- . Follow Walter @walterfootball for updates.

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