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Cardinals' Isaiah Simmons embracing move to safety: 'I feel a little more free'

Isaiah Simmons' NFL career began with big dreams of his potential.

Arizona selected Simmons, an incredible athlete without a traditional fit, because of what might be possible. After three seasons, though, Simmons is changing positions under new coach Jonathan Gannon, moving from linebacker to safety after requesting the switch.

"I told them I didn't want to play linebacker," Simmons said Monday, via the team's site. "I felt more comfortable getting back to things I had done in the past."

The past saw Simmons begin his collegiate career at Clemson as a safety. He eventually transitioned to linebacker, where he thrived, thanks to his rare blend of size and speed. He hasn't found the same success in the NFL, though, and with a new regime providing a fresh start, Simmons is taking advantage of the timing.

"If they came here and said, 'You're going to be a Mike linebacker,' I would've done it to the best of my ability," Simmons said. "I think they understood that's maybe the designed position I was supposed to be at, and I'm happy they let me come in and lock in on one position."

Visually, it's clear Simmons isn't like most safeties. At 6-foot-4 and 238 pounds, he's larger than most defensive backs, but with receiver-quality speed, he's uniquely capable of filling the role -- even if it's unorthodox.

Simmons has flashed a nose for the ball in his first few seasons, recording four interceptions (including one returned for a touchdown), 16 passes defensed and seven forced fumbles. He did so while playing linebacker, too, which might end up being even more impressive in hindsight, if he's able to become a standout at safety.

For Simmons, it's about comfort and familiarity. Because Arizona declined Simmons' fifth-year option, his fourth season will be crucial to his future, so it's best to place him where he'll be most confident.

"He's been reliable back there, which is the first trait of a safety to me," Gannon said. "He's in the right spot all the time. He shows range and some hitting ability, a little bit of coverage ability, downhill striking ability. Long way to go, but I like where he is at."

A blueprint for Simmons' fit might already exist in Ravens safety Kyle Hamilton's 2022 tape. Hamilton earned Pro Football Focus' top grade among all NFL safeties despite not filling the traditional safety role in Baltimore as a rookie. Simmons could find similar success in Arizona's defense if it wants to take advantage of his versatility.

He's not the only former first-round pick who is changing roles. Gannon is also overseeing a shift for 2021 first-rounder Zaven Collins, who is moving from inside linebacker to an edge-rushing position.

But Collins still has time to prove his worth. Simmons is running out of it. He's encouraged by the results from his change, and hopes it will produce positive results.

"Doing what's best for me is actually best for the team," Simmons said of moving to safety. "I think now why it looks like I feel a little more free, more like myself in my game."

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