Expect a bourgeoning grove in the Arizona desert this upcoming season.
Wrapping up rookie minicamp on Friday, Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury said it was fair to suppose Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins are the starting inside linebackers for 2021.
"They'll win the prettiest linebacker duo award when they line up side-by-side," Kingsbury said of Collins and Simmons, via the team website. "Those are two big, long, athletic cats."
Cardinals general manager Steve Keim compared the idea of Simmons and Collins up the middle as like having two big trees clogging the passing lanes.
"Two really fast trees," Kingsbury added.
A new-look Cardinals linebacking corps has been the expectation after they drafted Collins with the No. 16 overall pick, which led to the team giving Jordan Hicks permission to seek a trade a week later. Kingsbury said Hicks is "one of the most respected players on our team" and didn't want to expound on the situation any further. However, Friday's message was clear: the Cardinals are looking to start their last two first-round picks.
"We know there will be growing pains, two guys getting indoctrinated to the league," Kingsbury said. "But they are athletic enough to make up for some of the experience they don't have, and we're excited to grow with them and see what they can become together."
Simmons, who was drafted No. 8 overall in 2020, was considered a hybrid safety coming out of Clemson a year ago. He started seven games for the Cards in his rookie season, collecting two sacks, one forced fumble, one interception, a fumble recovery and 54 total tackles.
At 6-foot-4, 238 pounds, Simmons is the slightly smaller tree in AZ with the rookie Collins coming in at 6-foot-4, 260 pounds. Collins is expected to attain the MIKE linebacker role, but the Tulsa product isn't assuming anything.
"I'm just going out every day, just working and trying to make that role, trying to earn it," said Collins, who participated in rookie camp. "Nothing's given, you've got to earn everything. Every snap, every day, every install that we have."
Collins said the in-person workouts are "much more helpful" than the idea of having to work virtually, which Simmons was forced to deal with in his first offseason during the COVID-19 pandemic. The soon-to-be 22-year-old considered it a blessing to learn via walkthroughs and gain the necessary knowledge to be well-prepared for Phase 2 of minicamp when veterans take the practice field.
"Whether you're starting or not, you've got to come into this league and come into this program working your tail off," Collins said. "Whether you are a starter or at the bottom it doesn't matter. You have to go in every day trying to earn your spot and for me, I don't know where my spot is right now."
Simmons and Collins will be flanked by Chandler Jones and Markus Golden to round out an intriguing corps of linebackers/pass-rushers. With the offseason addition J.J. Watt, the Cardinals' front seven is intriguing on paper and its potential has Kingsbury gushing ahead of a crucial third season as coach.