After eight positions last season, football finally slowing down for Arizona Cardinals' Isaiah Simmons

Isaiah Simmons, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2020 draft, is ready to take on a bigger leadership role this season, even if that means criticizing J.J. Watt. Andrew Nelles-USA TODAY Sports

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Heading into his third NFL season, Arizona Cardinals linebacker Isaiah Simmons is experiencing the phenomenon that usually comes after a player's first season.

Football is finally slowing down for the former first-round pick.

It took an additional year for Simmons because of what's been heaped on his plate: The need to learn multiple positions.

Simmons, taken No. 8 overall in the 2020 draft, lined up at eight different positions last season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, from linebacker (324 snaps) to edge rusher (207) to outside linebacker (193) to slot corner (139). Add in his reps at inside defensive line, left corner, right corner and safety and there are few defensive positions Simmons didn't play last season. With that many positions to learn, it's no surprise it's taken Simmons until his third season to get a better grasp of the game.

"Everything's 100 percent slowed down a lot more," Simmons said. "Way more comfortable this year, even than I was last year, and I just feel like the method that I've been going about has been beneficial to me mentally."

Despite working at safety this offseason, Simmons said his main focus this year will be inside linebacker, where, alongside 2021 first-round pick Zaven Collins, he'll be running the Cardinals' defense.

Simmons, 23, believes he can "dominate" at inside linebacker with two years of experience and having learned various roles.

"Just being able to go everywhere has just gave me, conceptually, more knowledge of our defense, which has been able to help me a lot," he said. "I mean, it's a game of leverage, so knowing what your help is, is just, it's been [great]."

Simmons has no plans of trying to limit himself. Playing one position isn't "really me," he said, even if it would have helped him be further along.

"I've played multiple positions for as long as you guys have probably known my name," he said. "That's just who I am."

With a higher comfort level comes the opportunity for Simmons to open up as a leader. He says it's been inside him throughout his NFL journey but is able to expose it more now.

"I don't really have a problem with saying something to anyone, because at the end of the day, I'm not really here to be anybody's friend," Simmons said. "We're all trying to get to the Lombardi Trophy.

"If you don't like what I'm saying, then you're probably in it for the wrong reasons. Because I'm not saying anything to hurt anyone's feelings or to call anyone out. It's just all for the better of us."

Maybe it's his age or maybe it's just how he's wired, but Simmons doesn't mind taking on the veterans in the locker room. And that means telling J.J. Watt to get his backside in gear a time or two.

Simmons was nervous the first time he said something to Watt, masking his criticism as a joke.

"We butt heads a little bit, but it's just because I want J.J. to be better than he's ever been," Simmons said. "Which is, that's a lot to say, especially to a defensive player of the year. He's my biggest critic, but he wants me to be the absolute best I can.

"So, if it's J.J. telling me something that I don't want to hear, I feel like he will want me to do vice versa. So, just being able to get after him knowing that we can get after each other, all with the same end goal."

Simmons has been that way with Collins, too. He got after Collins a time or two during the offseason but hopes his fellow inside linebacker knows he's not harping. He's trying to make Collins better.

Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury credited the game slowing down for Simmons to this being his first true offseason because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And the changes have been noticeable to Kingsbury.

"To be around, everything slowed down, having figured out that he can play at a high level, I think he has the confidence to be a leader and I think as he grows and continues to become more and more of a professional," Kingsbury said, "that will only get better."