Cardinals still working with last 2 first-round picks while veteran led defense Darren Urban
Jordan Hicks, the man who would be traded, the man who would be benched, the man who ultimately played a team-most 1,054 defensive snaps for the Cardinals in 2021, always insisted he would work with his young replacement Zaven Collins.
The same went for his young partner at inside linebacker, Isaiah Simmons.
"Our relationship, between me and Zaven and me and Isaiah and all three of us, we've gotten really close this year," Hicks said. "It's been a pleasure working with those guys."
The Cardinals have a multitude of decisions to make this offseason when it comes to their roster and their plans for 2022. Nowhere is that spotlight greater than at inside linebacker. The team has spent its last two first-round picks at the spot. After playing a bunch early, Collins' defensive playing time dwindled to little or nothing down the stretch. Simmons played the third-most defensive snaps all season, but he was game-planned into only 32 percent of the snaps in the Cards' playoff game.
Hicks, meanwhile, got past his anger of initially being told Collins would start in front of him, although there is uncertainty going forward.
At some point, Collins and Simmons are both going to play. A lot. Given their draft status, it almost seems like a lock it will be in 2022.
"We hope they will be able to have more of an offseason (with Covid rules) and continue to develop and step in and have more prominent roles," coach Kliff Kingsbury said.
Simmons, a year ahead of Collins, was an integral part of the unit this season. Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph lauded the way Simmons - as was his ability in college - can play multiple spots on short notice. The Cardinals used him as such.
According to Pro Football Focus, Simmons was used for 596 snaps as an inside linebacker, but also 237 snaps on the defensive line/edge rusher, 165 snaps as a slot corner, 24 snaps at outside cornerback and 2 snaps at free safety (through the playoff game).
"The sky is the limit for Isaiah," linebacker Chandler Jones said. "I tell him all the time, 'You're going to be a tremendous player.' Better than what you see out there right now, honestly."
Collins had a more difficult time, his rookie season unfolding the opposite of Simmons in 2020. Simmons played little early and a lot more later; Collins' work dried up significantly in the second half of the season.
Over the last nine games (including the playoffs), Collins played just 38 defensive snaps. And after he was announced to be the starting inside linebacker over Hicks when he was drafted, he ended up playing 29 snaps at outside linebacker in his last three games and only six on the inside.
Joseph praised Collins for his work against the Cowboys late in the season, and with the future of Jones in the air, it remains possible Collins could get even more work as an outside linebacker.
"You can see his body unlock, you can see his size and speed," Joseph said after the Cowboys' game, adding, "To watch him play fast and play with confidence, that was a joy to us."
What the Cardinals do with Collins, and what their plans are for Hicks, remain to be seen. Hicks, who is under contract through 2022, was asked if he was going to again ask for a trade this offseason.
"We'll see," Hicks said. "I've been so focused on this past (playoff) game, we'll see how it all shakes out. Not ready to answer that question yet."
But Hicks, honest as always, did say he thought Collins and Simmons can be ready for 2022 as a tandem, if that's what the Cardinals want to do.
"I think they wouldn't be here if they weren't, and at some point you have to entrust them with it whether they are ready or not, right?" Hicks said. "As an NFL player, as a professional, you have to do everything you can to get ready.
"As difficult as it may be, I was thrown into that position at one point. I had to figure out a way."