The schematic chess match between offensive and defensive play-callers in the NFL continues to evolve. As offenses embrace spread principles, the lines between positional designations have increasingly blurred―receivers are used as runners, running backs as receivers, and tight ends as a little bit of both. With the ability to stretch opponents thin by deploying wide-open formations and then creating mismatches with hybrid, do-anything playmakers like Alvin Kamara, Travis Kelce, or Deebo Samuel, play-callers are frequently finding an edge―one their defensive counterparts have struggled to match.
Sometimes, though, you have to fight fire with fire, and smart teams have looked to meet the problems that these high-octane offenses create by deploying hyper-versatile playmakers of their own. That makes Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons one of the most exciting prospects in the upcoming draft class: The former Tiger is an explosive athlete who logged reps at safety, linebacker, nickel corner, and even pass rusher in college. When asked by reporters at the combine what position he plays, the versatile, 6-foot-4 238-pounder replied, simply, “defense.” Simmons―who ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash (first among linebackers) and jumped 39 inches in the vert (tied for third) and 11 feet in the broad jump (second) at the combine―represents the archetype of the defender of the future, an athletic wonder with a deploy-him-anywhere skill set and the ability to neutralize opponents’ top mismatch creators. He brings the potential to give the league’s super-versatile offenses a taste of their own medicine.
The former state champion long jumper leaned on his rare length and exceptional speed to make an impact in multiple roles during his college career, starting off as a safety his freshman year before moving to a primary slot defender role in 2018. He did a little of everything in 2019, logging 100-plus snaps at edge defender, linebacker, strong safety, free safety, and slot cornerback, according to Pro Football Focus. And while the majority of so-called hybrid players end up being jacks of all trades but masters of none, Simmons breaks that mold―showing a unique ability to do just about everything he was asked to do at an elite level. Per PFF, the former Tigers star was the only player in college football with 80.0-plus grades as a run defender, tackler, pass rusher, coverage man, and overall defender. The Tigers star filled up just about every category on the stat sheet, racking up 102 tackles―16.5 going for a loss―8.0 sacks, three picks, seven pass deflections, and one forced fumble.
The first thing that pops off of Simmons’s tape―after you’ve figured out where he’s lined up, I mean―is his incredible range and reliability as a finisher. Whether he’s aligned deep, up in the box, or over the slot, he moves around the field with smooth efficiency; once he’s locked on to his target and in pursuit, he closes quickly and rarely misses his target. His length (he has a nearly 82-inch wingspan) shows frequently, too, helping him corral opponents who likely would’ve escaped most defenders.
Simmons is quick to diagnose whether a play is a run or a pass. And he’s an aggressive, effective blitzer. On one play against LSU, he blitzed against the run, shot into the backfield, and brought the elusive Clyde Edwards-Helaire down for a loss.
Against North Carolina, Simmons shot in off the edge and bowled right through a hapless running back to bring down the quarterback for a sack.
Simmons, who’s said he models his pass-rush game after none other than Von Miller, showed some Miller-esque bend at times during his college career. Against South Carolina, he came in on a blitz from the second level, dipping his shoulder to turn the corner and quickly bend back into the pocket to get to the quarterback.
Simmons is as reliable as it comes as a tackler, and finished with just a 6 percent missed tackle rate in 2019, which tied for second among all linebackers, according to the Sports Info Solutions Draft Guide. He should be a good fit if asked to play as a weakside linebacker in the pros, where he can flow freely, avoid blockers, and chase down the ball. Teams may use him from time to time as a de facto Mike linebacker, too. He lacks the size and mass of some NFL inside linebackers and may struggle to take on pulling guards at the next level, but he certainly packs enough punch to be a factor when coming up into the briar patch in the middle.
He’s adept at playing farther off the ball, too―either from a two-high-safety look or from over the slot―where he can keep an eye in the backfield and come downhill to make a tackle, intercept the ball, or get his hands into passing lanes.
On this play against LSU, Simmons used a quick-twitch click-and-close and his long arms to reach through his opponent’s frame to bat the ball down:
And he frequently showed craftiness and ball skills in coverage. Against Notre Dame, he straight-up stole the ball from the receiver as the two fell to the ground.
Crucially, Simmons excels in coverage with his back to the ball, as well, a skill that few safeties and linebackers his size possess. The 21-year-old star can flip his hips like a corner, has makeup speed to stay with his opponent, and knows when to turn his head around to find the ball.
Put it all together, and Simmons’s skill set is truly rare―and defensive coordinators will find few limits in how they can deploy him. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has long leaned on adaptable linebackers and defensive backs like Simmons to be schematic problem solvers―Patrick Chung has been that guy over the past few years―and the Chargers’ Derwin James and Chiefs’ Tyrann Mathieu are among the league’s elite as positionless playmakers. James and Mathieu both transcend traditional safety roles and have helped give defensive schemers incredible flexibility from play to play, in the process changing the complexion of their respective defenses. Simmons has been that guy for the talent-packed Tigers over the past couple of seasons and brings game-changing potential to the NFL.
The Clemson star is a Swiss army knife player who can match up with opponents’ top seam-stretching tight end, scream in off the edge to get to the quarterback, or pick off a pass playing a robber role from a two-high look. Wherever he lines up―and that might be different on any given play―he’s an agent of chaos who makes life hell for opposing play-callers.