The Isaiah Simmons Project: Where Does the Talented Playmaker Fit?

Examining the upside of Clemson hybrid defender Isaiah Simmons and how he will fit in the NFL.

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You don’t need to watch Isaiah Simmons for more than a few minutes to discern his talent. A former wide receiver and defensive back in high school, the Clemson standout moves easily and quickly, surefooted and dangerous, wreaking havoc no matter where he lines up.

Like a cheetah bearing down on its prey in the wild, Simmons has a way of corralling ball carriers swiftly and ruthlessly, turning what could have been a positive play for the offense into a negative one. In this, and so many other ways, he is a true game-changer at the linebacker position.

And therein lies the rub with Simmons: as talented as he is, there is little consensus among the draft community as to his best position at the next level. Pro Football Focus insists ‘you can’t go wrong with whatever role you want Simmons to fill – he is that talented’; Walter Football lauds Simmons’ pass coverage abilities as his ‘best trait’, while NFL.com’s draft guru Lance Zierlein simply calls him ‘an ascending hybrid talent’ with rare skills.

The one thing there is consensus on, at least, is how talented Simmons is, but what is his best fit?

Simmons ticks all the boxes

When you think about the modern NFL linebacker, coaches value things like toughness, instincts, pass coverage, and the je ne sais quoi quality of reading the game in front of you, putting the pieces together mentally and having that married to a physical reaction. If done correctly, it can result in a Luke Kuechly-like savant of the game, where a player possesses a preternatural sense of where the football is going and how to attack downhill to stop an offense in its tracks.

For defensive backs, coaches will talk about change of direction, quickness, coordination, length, and an innate feel for when to attack and when to back off and make the sure tackle. The best at their craft make it look easy at times, but guarding the league’s best receivers (and pass-catching backs) is among the tallest tasks for a professional defender.

The scary thing about Simmons is that he can do all these things, creating a dual-threat defender. This clip from PFF illustrates some of the versatility in his game:

The term ‘NFL-ready’ is thrown around somewhat willy-nilly in the lead up to the NFL Draft, but most analysts agree that Simmons can make the transition to the league smoothly. There is no neat and tidy comparison for the type of player he can be at the next level, though some have suggested a mix of Darius Leonard and Lavonte David would be apt.

From a fantasy perspective, the projection is straightforward and downright exciting; Simmons could vault into the top 10 among all defenders immediately as he assumes an every-down role with the added benefit of heavy involvement in pass defense. Leagues that reward extra points for big plays will put Simmons on a pedestal that not many IDPs occupy. That is how special he is. It is not a leap; Leonard and David racked up tackles for fun in their rookie seasons, with both recording 112 solo tackles.

What the film reveals

Click and close ability

Simmons blew up the Scouting Combine, rubberstamping his status as one of the most athletically gifted players to step onto the hallowed turf of Lucas Oil Field. The most enjoyable thing about dissecting his film is how often he makes plays like the ones shown in the video below; lurking a few yards off the ball before exploding downhill to snuff out the threat.

Coverage

NFL defensive coordinators will be intimately familiar with Simmons’ seamless ability to transition, as comfortable backpedaling and getting to coverage landmarks as he is propelling himself forward violently into backs and receivers. Perhaps no clip illustrates that talent better than this one, a play in coverage against current Baltimore Ravens wideout Miles Boykin. If there is any doubt that Simmons can play three downs, this play eliminates it:

Simmons is six-foot and 238lbs and yet, per PFF numbers, in his final season he lined up 132 snaps at free safety, 262 at slot cornerback, 116 on the defensive line and even 13 at cornerback. This is a freak of nature. His 1.51-second 10-yard split is on display in the clip below, a brilliant read of a sideline throw by probable future first-round quarterback Justin Fields:

Is Simmons’ versatility a blessing or a curse?

What strikes me when analyzing Simmons off the field is how calmly he accepts the fact that he is a generational talent and a truly rare package of skills. When asked at the Scouting Combine what position he plays, he simply responded: ‘defense’. No hint of bravado, no whiff of cockiness; just a young man supremely comfortable in his own skin.

Describing himself as a ‘Swiss army knife’ on the field, in a league that once eschewed the positionless player, it appears he has arrived at precisely the correct moment. The tide is turning, the new wave of player awaits; Simmons is part of the vanguard of defenders that colleges are churning out to compete against increasingly complex and fast offenses.

Simmons’ versatility is a blessing. While there may be some low-level headaches in league management software down the line – whether to call him a safety or a linebacker – there is little doubt that investing in him as an IDP asset is the soundest one you will make for a long time. The temptation is to be reticent to put all your eggs in the basket of a player that the league hasn’t really seen before, but that would be a mistake. To paraphrase my colleague Sigmund Bloom, we have to be open to the possibility of something happening – the exception - even if it hasn’t happened before.

Simmons is that exception.

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Thanks for reading and I wish you the best of luck in your upcoming rookie drafts.

If you have any questions regarding IDP fantasy football, please drop me a line on Twitter @davlar87


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