If you listen hard enough, you can hear 32 NFL defensive coordinators cajoling their respective teams to grab Isaiah Simmons in this week’s draft.
Simmons is not merely among the best defensive player in the class, he’s an embodiment of the evolution of the sport: the rise of near-positionless defensive ninjas, built to stop new offensive tactics.
Offensive schemes are now based on the skills of blazing speedsters in space, polar bears masquerading as tight ends, and players with the kind of springs usually reserved for a dunk content. Matching up with all of that is virtually impossible for most defenses. There’s little you can do when a team can flex their running back, tight end or stud wide receiver to any and every spot on the field. Many players can take up multiple positions, and the offense has that age-old advantage of knowing what it’s doing before the ball is snapped.
To counter, a defense must find a guy capable of lining up in multiple spots, or a series of defenders who are comfortable covering whoever lines up in front of them. But those players don’t grow on trees.
Simmons represents a rare opportunity to land such a unicorn. He is listed as a linebacker, but he’s truly a roaming defensive weapon. Take his game in the college football national championship game between his Clemson Tigers and LSU. He played 27 snaps as a prototypical linebacker. The rest were split all over the place: 21 as pass-rusher, nine along the defensive line, eight as a rotating safety attacking downhill, seven in the slot, six as a deep-lying safety, and nine as a cornerback patrolling the boundary.
That is absurd. It does not happen. It should not happen. Not in high school. Not in college. Certainly not in the pros. Nobody should have the size and mobility to thud along the defensive line and the speed and agility to play outside as a cornerback. Simmons breaks all the norms. He is 6ft 4in and 235lbs with arms so long he can tie his shoelaces standing up, and is uniquely built to play whatever role he damn well pleases. He is a former high-school state champion long jumper who has transitioned those hops to the football field. Add to that a rare blend of speed and grace and violence, and you have a cocktail for a defensive menace, whether he’s lined up along the line of scrimmage, pushed a little further back, or taking up one of the cornerback spots.
Simmons isn’t the only player who’s been able to shift between positions. He’s just the first to play so many at such a high level and at positions that typically require different body types and skill-sets.
Two years ago, Minkah Fitzpatrick entered the draft as someone who could play across the defensive backfield. He’s since found his home roaming in the Steelers defense, playing some safety, some slot corner and a little linebacker here and there. And then there are the likes of Kyle Van Noy, a no-frills, fundamentally sound player who can play all manner of techniques and in all manner of fronts. Again, listed as a linebacker, Van Noy is unlikely to show up on a top-100 players list, but there’s a reason he was so valued by Bill Belichick during his time in New England and why the Dolphins decided to give him a $51m contract last month.
Of course, lining up in a bunch of positions doesn’t matter if you stink at most or all of them. Van Noy struggled early in his career before he found the right coach and right situation. Fitzpatrick was shipped out of Miami just a year after being selected 11th overall by the Dolphins when a new staff came on board.
What is different about Simmons, though, is how excellent he has been in every position. Should he play solely as a cornerback in the NFL, covering top wide receivers such as DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, and Odell Beckham on every play? Probably not. Would you panic if that’s how the match-up worked out on a play-to-play basis? Nope. And that alone will be an unusual sensation for a defensive play-caller, who typically enter full-scale meltdown mode whenever a non-specialist cornerback is moved outside.
We think we know what will happen with the first two picks in Thursday’s draft. Cincinnati will take Joe Burrow, the Heisman-trophy-winning quarterback from LSU. Washington will then take whoever of the following they prefer: the walking All-Pro edge-rusher Chase Young; or one of the two remaining top quarterbacks, Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert. And then … we’re off!
Detroit and New York at three and four have been fairly open that they’re willing to trade away their picks. The presumption is that a team from further back will jump up to take one of Tagovailoa or Herbert. But what if the Lions or Giants want to overhaul their defense? What if they view Simmons as a one-of-a-kind talent who could transform a defense in a similar way to how a great tight end reshapes an offense.
As former NFL scout and current NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah noted this week, we’re likely to see less groupthink among the league this year. Scouts and executives have been working from home rather than on the road due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Group workouts are gone. So, too, are post-Pro Day drinks, where scouts and executives dish on the players they just worked out. Draft boards will be all over the place, with widely varying views on a whole batch of prospects.
The word “tweener”, a word used to describe a prospect whose body type doesn’t fit one particular position, is often used as a negative. But as football continues to place as much emphasis on speed as ever before, it’s now seen as a virtue. Simmons is the walking embodiment of the changing mindset. Whereas once he would have been a player without a position, now he’s the player without a position, the one a franchise will look to build its defensive philosophy around. It would be no unsurprising if he finds himself at the very top of a team’s board come draft night.