TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim barely slept the four nights leading up to the 2020 NFL draft. Insomnia before the draft has become an annual occurrence during his eight years as GM.
As is the case every year, Keim spent his nights during the early part of last week thinking over potential draft orders: Who’ll go where? Who could be there at No. 8? Who won’t?
Keim wondered whether there would be a run on quarterbacks or offensive tackles ahead of the Cardinals’ pick. He consumed news, analysis, predictions and projections.
But even after all of that consideration, the idea Clemson All-American linebacker Isaiah Simmons would be there at No. 8 seemed far-fetched.
“I didn’t think there was any chance that he was going to be there at our selection,” Keim said.
Three quarterbacks went in the top six. Defensive end Chase Young went second to the Washington Redskins. Cornerback Jeff Okudah went third to the Detroit Lions. An offensive lineman, Andrew Thomas, went fourth to the New York Giants. That left only one team between the Cardinals and Simmons: the Carolina Panthers at No. 7.
As picks came in, Keim was getting nervous, excited, all of it. Then the Panthers opted for defensive tackle Derrick Brown.
Simmons ranked in the top five of the Cardinals’ draft board, Keim said, but he declined to reveal which spot specifically. The 6-foot-3 1/2, 238-pound defender was one of the few players Keim had labeled as “elite.”
And when Thursday’s first round was over, Keim felt “very fortunate” to have drafted Simmons.
“We really feel he’s an unusual, unique, dynamic player and a guy that does multiple things for you,” Keim said. “This is my 22nd draft in the NFL and I don’t know that I’ve scouted many players like this. I tried to think about different comps. To have a guy that’s essentially 6-foot-4, 238 pounds, he ran 4.34 at the combine. When you watch him on tape and you see him play the deep middle, the deep half, you see him play in the box, you see him blitz, rush the passer, he’s sort of a Swiss Army knife and does it all.
“We call that kind of player an eraser in this league, a guy that can cover tight ends.”
Keim was impressed with how Simmons, who hails from Olathe, Kansas, carried himself. Keim found Simmons to be “sharp” and “instinctive.”
Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons has the modern-day build to play linebacker in the NFL and has the speed and length to contribute all over the field.
On the field, Keim said he has rarely seen a player of Simmons’ size cover receivers out of the slot the way Simmons did in the national championship game, which Clemson lost to LSU.
Keim said he felt “extremely good” about how the Cardinals’ slotted players on their draft board this year. He said he had more time to watch tape due to travel restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic.
When the Cardinals finally were on the clock, Keim said picking Simmons “was a pretty easy decision,” even with calls from other teams wanting to trade.
Keim said he didn’t think twice about opting for an offensive tackle at No. 8 instead of Simmons. Tackle was a position of need after Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray was sacked 48 times last season, tied with Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Seattle’s Russell Wilson for the most in the NFL. Several top tackles were on the board at No. 8, including Jedrick Wills Jr. (taken No. 10 by the Cleveland Browns), Mekhi Becton (No. 11 New York Jets) and Tristan Wirfs (No. 13 Tampa Bay Buccaneers). The Cardinals ended up taking Houston offensive tackle Josh Jones in the third round.
“I had him rated much higher,” Keim said of Simmons. “I’ve scouted very few guys that possess this kind of talent and production when you look at the big picture.
“My mindset was, as it always will be, take the best player available. Some people probably think that offensive line is a need for us. No matter how you look at it, needs are always changing and we’re always going to take the best player on the board and that, in my opinion, was Isaiah Simmons.”