2020 Cardinals Draft Review: Heating Up In The Desert

After a terrible 2018 season, the Cardinals embarked on a new journey in 2019 that some would consider to be a major risk. An undersized quarterback and a new head coach that had little success at the college level left the team in uncharted waters. A 5-10-1 record may seem like a bad season, but they were better than their record indicated and have only improved this offseason with now many believing they will be one of the most improved teams this upcoming season. After a strong free agency/trade period, the Cardinals’ draft was the cherry on top of a great few months. The Cardinals now have a direction and identity, next up is building a winning culture. 

1.8- Isaiah Simmons, LB/S Clemson

We’ve all heard about Isaiah Simmons at this point. He’s a player that is athletically off the charts for his size who is a true one of a kind type player, as he could be a high-level linebacker or safety. In addition to his freak athleticism, he has an incredibly high IQ and excels against the run and pass both. An incredibly underrated aspect of his game is his ability to use his length to his advantage. In pass defense, he uses his arms to jam up receivers and to defend passes. In the run, he engages with much bigger blockers and disengages them quickly to make the play. He covers so much ground that he may also be a spy against a quarterback, most notably Russell Wilson on the Seahawks. By himself, he eliminates the threat of a quarterback scramble. However, there are natural questions about the fit in this 3-4 defense. Personally, I don’t think Vance Joseph is an elite defensive coordinator and don’t think he’s creative enough to unlock Simmons’ potential. I could be very wrong and even if I am right, that would mean Joseph isn’t there for the long haul. What I think the Cardinals would, and should, do is become a true hybrid defense. Utilize Chandler Jones as an end with his hand in the dirt more often and try to play Simmons in a more traditional weakside linebacker. This would allow him to use his speed and quickness tracking down running backs and then when it comes down to third down, have him guard a tight end or someone out of the backfield. The NFC West has George Kittle, Tyler Higbee, and a zillion tight ends in Seattle, so when it comes to matching up against them, you’ll have the human eraser with Simmons. In this sense, Simmons becomes a safety and you could drop him in zone or creep him up in the box and man up in press coverage. Simmons was one of the most polarizing players in the draft, only because he’s nothing like we’ve seen before which is something that should excite a team. While it could take a season for Simmons to carve out his role, his upside is off the charts and I think he could be at the end of the day one of the two or three best players in this class. 

*2nd rounder for Hopkins

I won’t get too deep into this but just wanted to say… holy crap. What a trade. There’s close to no downside with this trade and if Hopkins continues to play as he has, this Cardinals offense will be one of the NFL’s best. 

3.72- Josh Jones, OT Houston

The Cardinals boasted one of the worst offensive lines a season ago, especially at tackle where they have D.J. Humphries on the left and a question mark on the right side. Kyler Murray can cover up a lot of the line’s deficiencies due to his speed, but we all know that he’s undersized and he’s not going to be able to run on every play. That makes the Josh Jones selection one of the best in the entire draft. Jones for being a fifth-year senior is still raw, his technique and footwork are a work in progress but his athleticism, length, and attitude will make him a starter immediately. In this offensive system which is predicated on speed and spreading the defense out, Jones will be able to play to his strengths and it’ll cover up his issues while he continues to progress. He would presumably become the starter at right tackle right away and then eventually progress to the left side. The Cardinals have a lot of faith in Humphries, but he’s an average tackle, and Jones has the potential to surpass his skill level. In order to get to the top of the division, you’ll have to go through the 49ers, who quite possibly have the best pass rush in the league. Keep beefing up that offensive line Arizona, this is a great first step. 

4.114- Leki Fotu, DL Utah

After a season of being one of the worst defenses across the board, changes had to be made. The first pick was Simmons, then the next two they decided to get some beef on that defensive line, and quite frankly they don’t get much beefier than Leki Fotu. At 6-5, 340 pounds, Fotu is a nose tackle but may not be implemented as a strict 0 technique (lined up over the center). He has shown in college that he has the athleticism to be effective lining up as a 1 or 2 technique (1 is between the guard and tackle and 2 is over the guard). He grew up as a rugby player and you can see it in the way he plays at times. He’s a human bowling ball, just dominating players with his strength and his explosiveness in short areas in special for someone his size. General Manager compared him to Buccaneers DL Vita Vea, which is high praise as Vea was one of the best nose tackles in the league last season. Fotu isn’t a great pass rusher and doesn’t show much technique on that end. However, when you’re bigger and stronger than everyone else, you usually never have to rely on anything else. The Cardinals did just sign nose tackle Jordan Phillips to a three-year deal, but Kliff Kingsbury did say they want to use Phillips all across the line and Vance Joseph has coached Phillips in the past and must trust his versatility across the line. With Seattle and San Francisco having two of the best rushing attacks in the league in your  division, Arizona couldn’t just sit around another season and rely solely on their offense out-scouring them. While Fotu isn’t the dynamic pass rusher so many teams covet now, he’s a space-eater who will carve out a solid role in a suddenly much deeper defensive line. 

4.131- Rashard Lawrence, DL LSU

The second big fella on the defensive line that the Cardinals picked to help their run defense was Rashard Lawrence, one of the team captains from the defending national champion LSU Tigers. Lawrence and Fotu share some similarities as good run-stuffers but go about it in much different ways. While Fotu is just a behemoth of a man and is more suited for a nose tackle role where he can use his sheer strength and athletic ability to bully you, Lawrence relies on his motor and low center of gravity to occupy blockers. He’s a tad short for a defensive lineman (6-2) but as previously mentioned, he uses that to his advantage because he’s able to keep his pad level lower and use his lower body strength to push offensive lineman back. He’s never going to fill up the box score but does the subtle things to be effective. He’s going to take on blockers and blow up blockers forcing the running back or quarterback to redirect. He’ll also never take a play off and give it everything he has on every play. Not many players can genuinely say that they give maximum effort, but Lawrence is one of them. Much like Fotu, he won’t offer you much as a pass rusher. He isn’t quick nor does he have the pass rush moves you’d like to see. Due to this, he might only become a two-down player and rotational piece across the line. He reminds me so much of former LSU Tiger, Ricky Jean-Francois. A positive member of the locker room who may never get the spotlight or attention, but plays for several years and does the dirty work that will go unnoticed in great defenses. I’d line him up as a two-gap tackle and a guy you’ll want to give twenty snaps a game too. Currently, the Cardinals don’t really have a lineman (not counting Chandler Jones) that has had a history of success in the league (Phillips has only had one big season). Because of this, the door is open for Lawrence to get playing time. And as a gambling man, I would never bet against a guy like Lawrence so I would expect him to be a fan favorite in no time. 

6.202- Evan Weaver, LB Cal

Continuing on the theme of needing to strengthen the defense, the Cardinals picked another stud run defender who faces limitations in his all-around game. Ten years ago, Weaver would have been a first-round pick. The Pac 12 Defensive Player of the Year and First Team All-American is a stud against the run, accumulating over 300 tackles in his last two seasons combined. He takes great angles to take down the ball carriers and is able to read blockers as good as any college player. He’s never going to chase down a running back from behind and in many ways is the opposite in terms of athleticism to Simmons. However, he never quits on a play and if he’s not the one making the tackle, he’s going to be close to the ball. His main concern as a player is a lack of coverage ability, both in man and zone. He’s a poor athlete at the NFL level and while he’s a high IQ player, it still doesn’t make up for his slow first step and lack of top-end speed. Often he was beaten in coverage with one simple juke or cut against players who aren’t necessarily premier talents. Having a player of Simmons’s ability however, could make up for Weaver’s deficiencies as a player. Using Weaver as a 3-4 linebacker where he’s playing in tighter areas will allow him to not have to rely on his speed or quickness. Also, Simmons covers as much ground as any linebacker in the entire league possibly so that means Weaver won’t have to be used in coverage much and if he is, it’ll be more so in zone guarding a tighter area. Between Simmons, Jordan Hicks, and De’Vondre Campbell, I would not expect Weaver to see much playing time on defense in year one. Let him develop a bit in practice while he produces on special teams as a rookie. Eventually, you could see Weaver in the middle of a 4-3 defense or, probably the best case for him, add some weight, and utilize his run defending ability as a SAM linebacker. 

6.222- Eno Benjamin, RB Arizona State

When you have a quarterback who can run like Kyler Murray, it doesn’t matter how much you want to pass as a play-caller, you need to get creative on run designs. Because of this, a running back has an opportunity to get a lot of yards while the defense has to respect the other threats in a spread offense. We saw Kenyan Drake’s career take off after being traded to Arizona and averaged 5.2 yards a carry, by far the best he’s done. Despite this, Drake is a free agent after the season and if he performs well again, he could be in line for a bigger contract. Thus the Cardinals will have to explore their options. Chase Edmonds has done well as a backup the past two seasons in limited snaps and the team might want to give him more carries this season to see what they have. Now, they have the local product to round out the running back room in Eno Benjamin. Benjamin for a sixth-round pick is a pretty well-rounded player. He has a lot of success in college and displayed good athleticism and versatility in Tempe. The thing that held him back in college was his lack of patience. Too often he would just run into the backs of offensive lineman rather than let the play develop. This could be a combination of a few things: lack of awareness, poor vision, bad offensive line play, or over-aggressiveness. Whatever it might be, this won’t be a huge problem in the Cardinals scheme. In a shotgun spread system, he will have fewer bodies in the box and athletic lineman in front of him creating holes. Benjamin also has some receiving ability that makes him a three-down playmaker. Drake will undoubtedly be the lead back and primary ball carrier but Benjamin has a chance to carve out a small role that could develop into a starting spot at some point in the future. 

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