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Isaiah Simmons adds “combine winner” to impressive resume

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NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

At the NFL Scouting Combine last week, LA Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn emphasized that the team would be taking a “best player available” approach at the draft this year, including with the sixth overall pick. One athlete who has long drawn mention in the conversation for “best player in the entire draft” is Clemson linebacker/safety/slot corner Isaiah Simmons and those talks only grew louder after his performance this past week.

Simmons measured in at 6’4, 238 lbs, with 33 3/8” arms as he spent 2017-2018 as a “safety” in the Tigers secondary, then 2019 as a “linebacker.” In reality, he was like The Invisible Man (wow, what a seamless tie-in) in that he could show up anywhere.

He has played in two national championships, recording nine tackles and one TFL in Clemson’s title victory over Alabama a year ago, then seven tackles, two TFL, one sack, and two batted passes in their loss to LSU this season. He entered the NFL draft this year, leaving one year of eligibility on his resume, then ran a 4.39 in the 40-yard dash on Saturday.

According to Pro-Football-Reference’s combine results play index, these are the people who have run a sub-4.4 40-yard dash at 6’4-6’5 and between 230-250 lbs:

Calvin Johnson, 2007: 6’5, 239 lbs, 4.35 40-yard dash

Isaiah Simmons, 2020: 6’4, 238 lbs, 4.39 40-yard dash

That’s it.

As shown on the NFL Network’s coverage of the event, Simmons ran faster than cornerback Jalen Ramsey and Chargers safety Derwin James. He was also faster than Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, and Christian McCaffrey.

Simmons recorded 88 tackles, nine TFL, two sacks, one interceptions, six passes defensed, and three forced fumbles as a redshirt sophomore, then 104 tackles, 16.5 TFL, eight sacks, three interceptions, eight passes defensed, and two forced fumbles as a junior. Derwin himself even had to chime in:

In addition to his speed, Simmons was also an elite tester in the vertical and broad jumps, drawing straightline comparisons to Seattle Seahawks All-Pro Bobby Wagner:

His NFL.com draft profile highlights his rare versatility, though it could be his lack of one true position that also keeps this “best defensive player in the draft” (which, in reality, probably just makes him the best player in the draft if that’s what you believe) available past the top five picks.

Ascending hybrid talent with rare length, speed and versatility to create mismatches for the offense, depending upon alignment. He has a bachelor’s at three positions (slot corner, safety, linebacker) but could earn a master’s degree in complex workload with a more focused and defined job description than “jack-of-all-trades.” He can handle zone or man coverage from a variety of spots on the field, which gives defensive coordinators a chance to disguise blitz packages and exotic post-snap looks. He’ll miss run fits and can be misdirected due to a lack of instincts near the line, but his playmaking range outweighs those concerns for now. His unique potential to spy and shrink the field against dual-threat quarterbacks could push him way up the draft board.

The big question for me to ponder is, “Why do we accept that sometimes the “best” players don’t go ahead of other players?”

I know the answer may seem obvious. That different positions have different values and that coming away with an Eli Manning might be more valuable than coming away with Larry Fitzgerald, even if we all accept that Fitzgerald is a more uniquely gifted receiver than Manning is a gifted quarterback. But if a player is able to elevate himself into being more valuable towards a win, and if winning is the attribute you are most interested in improving for your franchise, then what does “best” matter?

Much like, “What would I do if I was invisible, like The Invisible Man, out now in theaters?” that’s just something I think about sometimes.

There’s little question though that Simmons will help a team win games if he pans out as expected, whether that is at safety or linebacker — however, we do know that safeties and linebackers rarely go as high as Simmons is projected to go. Since 2002, these safeties have gone in the top-8 of the draft:

Jamal Adams, 6th in 2017

Mark Barron, 7th in 2012

Eric Berry, 5th in 2010

LaRon Landry, 6th in 2007

Michael Huff, 7th in 2006

Donte Whitner, 8th in 2006

Sean Taylor, 5th in 2004

Roy Williams, 8th in 2002

First off, you can see that drafting safeties early has been dying out over the last decade, from five over 2002-2007, to three over 2008-2019. Consider also that while Berry’s success was only held back by injuries, then health issues, and Adams is an early career All-Pro, Barron serves as more of a cautionary tales for versatile linebacker/safety types. Barron measured 6’1, 213 lbs, and had 33 5/8” arms — but he ran a 4.56 in the 40-yard dash and didn’t perform in any other drills.

He was only a smidge faster at his pro day, but he had good hits in his broad jump (10’2) and 10-yard split (1.63). Reminder: Simmons weighs 25 more pounds and ran .17 seconds faster with a much longer broad jump and had a 4.5” higher vertical. So comparisons may simply end at versatility.

Barron was a poor fit at strong safety for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but found a strong place for himself as a do-a-lot defender for the St. Louis/LA Rams. Even Barron had plenty of value eventually, and he remains in the NFL as a player who had 82 tackles, three sacks, and an interception with the Pittsburgh Steelers last season.

Looking at top-8 linebackers from the last 18 drafts and you’ll see these players:

Devin White, 5th overall in 2019

Roquan Smith, 8th overall in 2018

Rolando McClain, 8th overall in 2010

Aaron Curry, 4th overall in 2009

A.J. Hawk, 5th overall in 2006

Expand that to players classified as edge-rushing linebackers:

Josh Allen, 7th overall in 2019

Dante Fowler, 3rd overall in 2015

Vic Beasley, 8th overall in 2015

Khalil Mack, 5th overall in 2014

Barkevious Mingo, 6th overall in 2013

Von Miller, 2nd overall in 2011

Expanding on some comps there, you’ll see that Miller measured in at 6’3, 246 lbs, 33.5” arms and he ran a 4.53 with a 37” vertical and a 10’6” broad jump.

Mack was 6’3, 251 lbs, 33.25” arms, ran a 4.65, a 40” vertical, and a 10’8” broad jump.

There’s a rarity to being as fast at 240 lbs as how fast Simmons is — there’s Calvin Johnson, there’s Vernon Davis (4.38 at 254), and not many others who have ever been measured at the combine like that — and that will have a lot of teams thinking, “He’s a player we can play somewhere.” That becomes especially important when you consider that the Kansas City Chiefs just won a Super Bowl with this guy:

Tyrann Mathieu was far more often a part of the secondary than he was in the front-seven but he did spent plenty of time as a linebacker. As @CoachOlaAdams says, “The way D is being played is changing! Versatility is key. Can you cover the slot!?”

Start going down the draft order at three and ask yourself if Isaiah Simmons could fit on that defense:

Could the Detroit Lions put him next to Jarrad Davis with the linebackers or at safety in place of free agent Tavon Wilson?

Could the New York Giants bring him in as a partner for Jabrill Peppers or slotting in nicely for a released Alec Ogletree?

Could the Miami Dolphins say, “We didn’t get our QB of the future right here, but we know we’re gonna rush him opposite of Charles Harris or groom him to replace Reshad Jones”?

And you already know how the Chargers could begin to start fantasizing about a secondary that included both James and Simmons alongside Casey Hayward and Desmond King. Or as an immediate upgrade to Thomas Davis or Denzel Perryman. Potentially even as an heir apparent to Melvin Ingram, giving them a defense that now features three young stars, plus a glimmer of hope for Jerry Tillery.

Is the raised confidence in a future of consistent production and value from Simmons more enticing than a potential offense-altering left tackle or a franchise-changing quarterback? Many people will argue that the odds of Justin Herbert being an NFL starter in three years is maybe 50/50, but even a “disappointment” like Barron has put in eight seasons, for five different defensive coordinators, in a bunch of different schemes, and a number of different positions.

And Simmons is twice the athlete that Barron is, according to my meter of wanting to make a spicy claim. He’s certainly a better athlete by the measurements we’ve agreed to use to judge these things and potentially the best all-around prospect at the 2020 combine regardless of position. And because of that “regardless of position” part, he might be available to Lynn at pick six.

How many players in this class would you take over him if they were available too? If enough teams agree that the answer is “0” then there’s a good chance that come April, Simmons availability at six will completely ... disappear.

Poll

Isaiah Simmons is the ____-best player in this class

This poll is closed

  • 29%
    2nd
    (86 votes)
  • 20%
    3rd
    (58 votes)
  • 9%
    4th
    (28 votes)
  • 3%
    5th
    (10 votes)
  • 2%
    6th
    (7 votes)
  • 3%
    Lower
    (10 votes)
  • 31%
    He’s the best
    (90 votes)
289 votes total Vote Now