“What position do you play?” A reporter asked Isaiah Simmons this question at the combine. His answer: “Defense.” That pretty much sums up Isaiah Simmons’ game. Simmons was listed as a linebacker at the combine, but that doesn’t do justice to what he can do on the field. The roles this guy can play don’t fit on one hand; Brent Venables, Clemson DC, just picked up no. 11 and placed him all over the field in different looks and coverages and Simmons showed out everywhere. Every defensive coordinator in the top 10 picks of this draft is praying that their GM pulls the trigger on Simmons.
We all know Simmons’ inhuman combine numbers, but let’s go over them one more time: At 6’4” 238 lbs, Simmons ran a 4.39 40-yard dash to go along with a 39” vertical. If that wasn’t enough to make NFL scouts start salivating, he has a wingspan of 81 7/8 inches, which is that of a 6’8” man. He also won ACC Defensive Player of the Year at Clemson and led their defense to the National Championship game.
Now, I’m not saying that this guy is the second coming of Lawrence Taylor or anything, but he’s just about the most versatile prospect and freakiest athlete I’ve ever seen in college football. I could talk for days about Simmons’ physical gifts, but he’s still a young player. He makes mistakes and he has flaws. So, let’s dive into the Isaiah Simmons scouting report.
In 2019, Isaiah Simmons had 102 tackles, eight sacks, three interceptions, one forced fumble, and 16 tackles for loss in 15 games as an off-ball linebacker/safety… The thing is, I can’t even say that those aren’t normal numbers for someone like Simmons, because there is nobody like Isaiah Simmons in college football. I am going to put Simmons’ strengths under two umbrellas: Versatility and Tackling. However, that in no way means that Simmons has only 2 upsides in his game.
Last year, Simmons lined up all over the gridiron. He can be the one-high safety in man coverage, the inside linebacker, outside linebacker, or safety in any zone, he can play man coverage in the slot, he can QB spy, and he can blitz with the best of them, and I don’t see a reason why he shouldn’t play all the same rolls in the NFL.
I don’t think he will ever be a one-position defender. To prove his versatility, I am going to put three videos below and highlight four different plays. In each play, he will be in a different role and will be making a play at every one of them. All of these plays will illustrate his strengths in his different responsibilities, explaining his versatility.
At the 2:35 timestamp in this video, Simmons is shown in zone coverage at outside linebacker, lurking about 4 yards behind the line of scrimmage. There is a UNC receiver running a slant behind him, but instead of turning his back on the quarterback to try and run with the route, he reads the quarterback’s eyes and as soon as the ball is let go, Simmons bats the ball down for an incompletion. This play is beautifully read by Simmons. He doesn’t bite too much on the play-action fake and reads the quarterback perfectly. The quarterback doesn’t take his eyes off of that slant route the whole play and Simmons knows that is where the ball is going. So, he knows where that receiver is by looking at the QB, he puts himself in a position to make a play, and then he makes it.
The next play is in the same UNC game at timestamp 3:02. Simmons is lined up like a blitzer on the line of scrimmage, but he falls back into man coverage after the snap. He is man-to-man with a tight end in the slot running a go down the middle of the field with two safeties over the top. Let’s disregard the fact that this was a terrible decision by the quarterback and just look at Simmons’ coverage. Simmons is running stride for stride right behind the tight end with ease.
He knows he has safety help over the top and if the quarterback leads the receiver, Simmons has more than enough speed, height, and leaping ability to get to that ball before the tight end. The play ends with the safety breaking up the pass and laying a hit on Simmons instead of the receiver, but Simmons is still in perfect position to make a play in this man coverage even after starting the play on the line of scrimmage. Not many teams have enough confidence in their linebackers to show blitz and fall back into man coverage on a third and long. But that’s just the thing. Simmons isn’t an ordinary linebacker.
This next play is Simmons’ interception in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State last season. He is playing the one-high safety with man coverage and a linebacker playing a shallow zone over the middle. Justin Fields fakes the give to the running back, and like the first highlight, is staring down his intended target the whole way. Simmons sees that, so he works his way over to that side of the field.
As he’s creeping that way, Fields starts his release and Simmons goes into a full sprint to cut off the route and make the interception. He has perfect timing and a perfect read on this ball. If he is closer to the receiver pre-throw then Fields might have gone to a different read, but he lurks over the top until the release and then Fields hits him in stride instead of the receiver.
At 0:31, Simmons is blitzing out of the linebacker position against South Carolina. He takes off from a stand-still position right as the snap is taken by the quarterback but then slows down shortly thereafter. He is thinking about where to attack the offensive line and decides, smartly, to go around the outside of the left tackle because he sees the running back coming up to help in the B gap.
He uses his speed to get to the outside, sticks a hand to the blocker’s chest, and then dips his shoulder under the tackle to get around the block. When the QB senses that the pocket is collapsing he tries to escape, but Simmons uses his momentum to leap towards the QB and bring him down before he gets out of the pocket. He chooses the right hole to attack and does exactly what he needs to do to get by the blocker.
Let’s recap. Simmons shows prowess in the pass rush, in man coverage, and in zone coverage at both safety and linebacker. He showed the ability to read the quarterback and stay disciplined within his zone as well as tremendous speed when closing on routes at safety. In man coverage, he showed his ability to position himself well based on his opponent as well as his tracking ability, turning his head around at the exact right moment to make a play on the ball (which is why he doesn’t see the hit from his teammate coming on that play). Finally, he shows his intelligence and skill in the pass rush. It is because of all these traits that Simmons can play all over the field, and each of these characteristics will transfer well over to the league.
Another positive in Simmons’ game is his tacking. Simmons is tremendous when making 1-on-1 tackles in space, which is expected of a top-10 linebacker prospect but is a prized trait for any safety prospect. If there is a running back who makes it to the third level of that defense and he meets Isaiah Simmons 15 yards downfield, I have confidence that Simmons can make that play. That isn’t something that I can say for many pro safeties, so the fact that Simmons has that coming into the league is another reason he should be able to make an instant impact on any team that drafts him. The following video is an example of a spectacular tackle that Simmons made against Georgia Tech last year (0:14).
On this play, Georgia Tech is running a read-option with Simmons as the read. The quarterback sees Simmons bite on the give to the running back, so he pulls the ball back and tries to get the outside on Simmons. Well, I don’t know why any college coach would run a read-option toward Simmons or why any quarterback would assume they could get the outside on him, and Georgia Tech found out why on this play.
Simmons sees the fake and shuffles his feet to cut off the quarterback’s lane before running at his target and tripping him up for only a 1-yard gain. Even though Simmons read the play wrong, he was still able to recover and make a play on the ball using his athleticism, but more importantly, his using his open-field tackling skills. He can only reach the left side of the runner, so he dives, grabbing and pulling the ankle to make the play. This is a great play that only an athlete with immense strength and quickness can make. The next play is a tackle against South Carolina (0:50 timestamp).
In this film against South Carolina, Simmons makes a tremendous stop that showcases not only his tackling but also his hit power. The South Carolina back, Rico Dowdle, hits this hole hard and tries to run Simmons over, and at 6’0” 215 lbs, that is not going to be a fun hit to take for most college linebackers. Not only does Simmons make this tackle with ease from a stand-still, but he also stands Dowdle up and pushes him back so he can’t get more yards falling forward. Simmons is a fantastic tackler for the linebacker position, so just imagine what he can do at safety with his speed and size.
The fairy-tale dream is over, kids. Isaiah Simmons isn’t a perfect player; he has flaws just like everyone else. However, what makes him a fit for the top-10 is that none of these shortcomings are physical, meaning they are all coachable. If a player lacks elite speed or agility, there is very little a coach is going to be able to do to fix that. Well, we know that isn’t the case with Simmons. Simmons’ issues are with his positioning in the run game, his ability to take on blocks, and his occasional hesitancy in man coverage against wide receivers.
I believe that Simmons’ issue with positioning and his trouble avoiding blockers go hand-in-hand. Shedding blocks is extremely important in the run game. If Simmons is neutralized against the run by one blocker consistently then he won’t be a viable starting linebacker at the NFL level.
Simmons is capable of shaking tacklers with his natural strength and athleticism, but he still needs to learn better technique because you can’t skate by with just physical gifts in the NFL. Because Simmons knows he can’t take on the average SEC or even ACC offensive lineman, he either avoids them, which causes poor positioning, or he engages and loses. A perfect example of this happened in a game against Virginia last season (3:22 timestamp).
There is an obvious quarterback run play and the running back is the lead blocker going through the left side B-gap of the line. Simmons engages with the guard pulling to that side, and the running back and quarterback go right through the B gap untouched for a first down. Simmons has no chance of getting by this blocker the minute he makes contact. The guard got his hands on Simmons, thus engaging and then neutralizing him on this play.
Simmons needs to see this block coming and either use a swim move to get to the inside or get a better angle/hand placement so he has more leverage to get out of the block once he knows which hole the runner is going through. To be honest, Simmons shouldn’t even be engaging with this offensive lineman. A guard pulling like that cannot keep up with Simmons’ lateral quickness. He should have sidestepped the guard and engaged the running back, filling up that hole and at least holding up the quarterback behind the line. Simmons will be eaten alive by NFL linemen at the next level if he continues like this. This play illustrates both Simmons’ poor reads and his trouble getting off blocks.
I am not saying that Simmons is weak in man coverage, and my analysis of this weakness may be controversial; however, I am looking at these weaknesses as what stands between Simmons and elite status, and his man coverage skills are on that list. Simmons gets beat in man coverage against slot receivers due to his footwork. He needs to trust his natural ability more. He shows this weakness in this tape against Louisville (8:21 timestamp).
On this play, Simmons is lined up in man coverage on a wideout in the slot on the strong side of the formation. Simmons is playing about eight yards off of the receiver and shuffles backward as the receiver starts his route. Then, the receiver makes his cut on an outpost and Simmons gets turned around and instead of making a b-line to where the receiver is heading on the sideline, Simmons goes a bit too far upfield and has to come back down to his man. This happens because Simmons is facing the inside and his hips are turned upfield. The pass is a lofty touch pass, so Simmons catches back up with impressive speed and almost causes an incompletion as he pushes the receiver out of bounds, but he is too late.
Simmons needs to fix his footwork on this play. He can’t be afraid to get beat on deep routes by a speedy receiver, because he will be playing against a lot of them in the slot at the next level. He should not turn his hips and shuffle as early as he did in this play, he should still be back peddling when this receiver makes his cut, especially given the amount of space between him and the receiver at the cut. He needs to trust his natural abilities and keep his feet in a position where he can cut on a dime to defend quick routes. If the route is a go or a deep post, he has the speed to make a quick turn and recover if he has to.
Best Fit & Projected Draft Position
I would normally do a pro comparison in a scouting report like this, but I really don’t see the point with this one. Simmons is truly a one of a kind and I don’t think I could accurately compare him to one NFL player. What I can do is tell you where he will fit best in the NFL, and that is with the Cleveland Browns.
The Browns are in desperate need of help at linebacker and could use some help at safety as well. Naturally, Simmons could go into that role and play MIKE linebacker in their 4-3 defense, outside linebacker/slot corner in passing situations, and over the top in Cover 3 or Cover 4 looks. Simmons can stretch the field at the second or third level and would be a great complement to their young cornerback core of Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams. Simmons to the Browns would eliminate a ton of holes in their defense and make them contenders in the AFC.
I don’t think the Browns will trade up in the draft to get him, nor do I believe he will fall to their 10th pick, so, unfortunately, Simmons to the Browns seems unlikely. I think he will land at number 6 with the Chargers. Assuming there are no trades within the top 6, which is by no means definite, I believe the order will go as follows: Burrow, Young, Brown, Wills, Tagovailoa, Simmons.
I believe that the Chargers will pass on a quarterback this early in this draft and take Simmons at 6. As a Panthers fan, who had the Panthers taking Simmons at 7 in a mock draft last week, this is a tough site to see. However, it means that Jeff Okudah would still be on the board, so I’m not too upset. Justin Herbert has been linked to the Chargers at 6 for months now, but after watching the film on Herbert, I don’t see him as a top-10 talent, and I think the Chargers will roll with Tyrod Taylor this year and maybe pick up a quarterback later in the draft to develop.
Isaiah Simmons is a once-in-a-generation type player and can do great things playing “Defense” at the NFL level.