ESPN highlights Arizona Cardinals LBs and CBs as two key positions to watch

In the months of discussion leading up to the start of the Arizona Cardinals’ 2022 season, the two positional X-factors that have undoubtedly emerged are linebacker and cornerback.

The lack of proven products and potential linebacker advantage makes these two groups feel specifically like the deciding aspect of a defense that could be pretty good, pretty bad, or somewhere in between.

So, unsurprisingly, the two fit into an exercise by ESPN’s Mike Clay where Clay analyzed 10 different positions by breaking them down into a single pick for each of these three groups: Best, Shakiest, and Unit to watch.

Clay had Arizona’s off-ball linebackers as the one to watch.

Arizona selected an off-ball linebacker in the first round of the 2020 draft (Isaiah Simmons eighth) and 2021 (Zaven Collins 16th). Neither has yet lived up to a lofty pedigree, but 2022 is a potential campaign for the duo. Collins was solid as a rookie, but he was limited to 211 snaps in a situational role behind Simmons and Jordan Hicks.

With Hicks gone, the 23-year-old is positioned for a bigger role against Simmons, who played 89% of the snaps last season. If Collins takes a big leap forward, it could quickly become one of the best units in the league.

Now, the interesting part of breaking this group down is how Simmons will be used in the “star support” role as a defensive weapon bouncing between that linebacker position, safety and penny. Simmons still technically represents that linebacker spot, but using him in this way is absolutely considered something worth watching.

While Clay is optimistic about Collins’ upside and his performance as a rookie, one name worth mentioning is Nick Vigil. Based on what we’ve seen so far in training camp, it seems safe to say that we’ll see some shots with Simmons and Vigil lining up next to each other or Vigil and Collins.

For cornerbacks, Clay ranked the Cardinals’ CBs as the weakest in the NFL and ranked them last.

The Cardinals are a team looking to make a Super Bowl run, so it was surprising to watch them all but ignore the cornerback position again this past offseason. Byron Murphy Jr. is a useful and versatile stater, but he doesn’t have much help. Marco Wilson struggled as a player across the board as a fourth-round rookie last season and remains well-placed to start against Murphy in 2020. Journeyman Antonio Hamilton is the best option as a nickel corner in the current state of the roster, with Jace Whittaker, Josh Jackson and seventh-round rookie Christian Matthew competing for snaps.

Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury said Friday that Hamilton has actually passed Wilson right now as the team’s No. 2 corner, which produces some hesitation over Wilson given the number of reps he got as a rookie last year.

Arizona Sports John Gambadoro reported on Burns and Gambo for a few weeks that he expects the Cardinals to make a trade for a cornerback at some point.

Robert M. Larson