Cardinals Feel Benefits of In-Person Offseason Program

Young Cardinals and newcomers reap benefits of meeting in person after having no practice prior to training camp in 2020.
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"I wish we could have had it last year."

Entering Year 2 of his NFL career, Arizona Cardinals linebacker Isaiah Simmons has finally experienced his first pre-training camp offseason work. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions last year, the first time Simmons got NFL reps with his teammates was during training camp, and his first in-game action came in Week 1. 

This led to limited snaps for him early in the regular season in favor of veterans. 

Simmons said Wednesday after minicamp practice that his rookie year was what it was: a little rough to learn everything without those offseason snaps, especially considering that was working at multiple positions. But, he said he is ready to capitalize on the extra reps and rapport gained with his teammates during this year's offseason program. 

"I'm really taking as much advantage of this time as I can, just because I didn't have this last year," Simmons said. "I just wish I had it last year, just seeing how it's helping Zaven (Collins) as well as other rookies. But, I played the cards I was dealt. I'm taking advantage of this time, as much as I can, just being able to be out there with the guys and get chemistry going."

Arizona Cardinals linebacker Isaiah Simmons (48) intercepts a pass by Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (left) intended for Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Tyler Lockett (16) during overtime at State Farm Stadium.

Simmons mentioned that Collins is a fast learner, and is coming along well in practice. 

Head coach Kliff Kingsbury said that Simmons was in an unusual circumstance like other rookies in his class last year with a lot thrown his way. Kingsbury and Simmons both said the 2020 rookie made improvements down the stretch when his snaps went up, and the Arizona head coach has high expectations for his young linebacker 2021. 

"You saw his progression throughout the season and towards the end, he was really making some big plays for us," Kingsbury said Thursday. "And just to have it slowed down in the offseason, that type of pace of teaching and learning, I think has been huge for him. And we expect him to make huge strides throughout training camp and throughout this season."

Kingsbury also said that he never knows where his young players are at until they get under the preseason and training camp lights. 

But, OTAs and minicamp allowed the Cardinals an opportunity to acquaint themselves with each other, work on communicating and gave new arrivals the chance to see the playbook unfold in front of them. 

"It's been a good time just having to work on our communication and stuff like that," cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. said. "We've been having fun, been doing good together. And I just think we've got to keep it going, keep pushing each other."

Simmons missed out on gaining critical reps as a rookie, but he eventually found a role after being a high draft pick.

Also getting their first offseason reps were the rookies from last season who did not play at all in 2020.

A couple of Pac-12 late-round picks linebacker Evan Weaver and running back Eno Benjamin were never activated for a game during their respective rookie campaigns. Benjamin was inactive each week, while Weaver spent the entire season on the practice squad. Preseason was when they could have had a chance to show out, during those crucial second halves of games when young players on the cusp of finding a role battle it out. 

Photo: Alex Weiner, Sports Illustrated

"Last year, the disappointing part for those young guys was the lack of preseason work," Kingsbury said. "And so those guys are getting a lot more reps during preseason this season. And we're excited to see kind of how far they've gone and how they develop through that process."

The preseason games start Aug. 13 for the Cardinals against the Dallas Cowboys. 

Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins came in as a reigning first-team All-Pro, but he also had a new playbook and quarterback to get to know. 

He ended up breaking the franchise record for catches in a season with 115. But over the last two weeks, he had an opportunity to get more practice reps with quarterback Kyler Murray and make the necessary mistakes in preparation to take his game another step forward. 

"I always say, Kyler and I get better when we mess up," Hopkins said. "Not when things go good, but the plays that we missed in practice. We're able to talk about it. And him being him. He wants to be perfect. So that's how I see us being better, not being perfect in practice, but messing up and being able to get on each other and talk about it."

Obviously, every team was on an equal playing field last year in terms of missed reps, and Murray even said he liked last year's version of the offseason. But, for the Cardinals specifically, getting on the field these past two weeks could have huge "getting on the same page" benefits considering how many players were added just in the past two offseasons. 

The next time they will meet on the field will be training camp in late July followed by a three-game preseason slate. Kingsbury will then get to see just how much this offseason program affected the team compared to last year.