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The Arizona Cardinals just can’t help themselves.
Following the somewhat unexpected release of defensive stalwart Jordan Hicks earlier this offseason, it looked as if the Cardinals were finally inching closer to committing to their first-round picks at linebacker. Clarity that was so desperately needed in years prior was seemingly on the way thanks to the gracious exit by Hicks. Yet after only a brief period, the Cardinals have opted to muddy the waters again.
On Tuesday, it was announced that the team had agreed to terms with veteran linebacker Nick Vigil on a one-year deal. Vigil, who is coming off a subpar season with Minnesota, is expected to see significant snaps at the position.
That’s bad news if you’re Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins.
Despite their lofty draft status, both Simmons and Collins were foolishly allowed to waste away on the bench during their rookie campaigns. Rather than grow and develop on the fly like so many other rookies(see Nick Bolton in Kansas City), the Cardinals have chosen a method more closely resembling complete and utter inactivity. This came to a head during last season’s playoff matchup against the LA Rams, as Cardinal defensive coordinator Vance Joseph opted to start Hicks and journeymen Tanner Vallejo inside at linebacker over the pair of first-rounders. The Rams, en route to an eventual Super Bowl, proceeded to embarrass Joseph’s unit on national television for all to see.
Joseph, who is a quality coach, clearly has a stigma against inexperienced players at the position. Even with Vallejo out for a large stretch of 2021, the third-year DC gave vital reps to fourth-stringer Joe Walker over Zaven Collins during the month of December. Walker, despite stealing precious snaps, was promptly released by Keim in early January. This piece of evidence, among others, means it’s only a matter of time before Vigil is logging key minutes of his own at the expense of Arizona’s last two first-rounders.
A six-year veteran out of Utah State, Vigil has been a fixture in the starting lineup wherever he’s been, dating back to his rookie season. While limited athletically, Vigil will do his best filling up the stat sheet with tackles 5-7 yards downfield. He offers what Joseph craves, which is another player/coach on the field to help call the defense. What he does not offer, however, are the impact plays that so many were promised when general manager Steve Keim drafted two consecutive top-16 players at the position.
Had Joseph been progressive with his teachings, he would have had both Simmons and Collins logging close to 90% of the defensive snaps during their young NFL careers. As a result, they’d be entering 2022 as known commodities ready to take the NFC West by storm. Instead, each are still considered “unknowns” by those around the league. The development of Simmons and Collins should be Joseph’s utmost priority, as his defensive unit began to fade in spectacular fashion during Arizona’s 1-5 stretch to end the season.
Yet just eight days into free agency and the club is prioritizing the signing of a 28-year-old linebacker with a lukewarm market.
Keim and company will spend the majority of the offseason, just like the prior two, talking up their young linebackers with the hope of swaying public perception once again. The coaching staff and front office can say what they want, but Cardinal fans know by now that talk is cheap. The fact of the matter is that they’ve seen this show one too many times when it comes to Joseph and his preference at the position. Which means, until the Cardinals decide to make a change as to who coordinates their defense, it’s more than fair to assume the development of their last two first-round picks will continue to suffer.
Outside of a complete shift in scheme, one that would see all three linebackers manning the field at once, Cardinal fans should expect the low-cost vet to be an early staple of Arizona’s defense this fall.
The temptation for Vance Jospeh is just too great.