INDIANAPOLIS — He took the first podium Thursday wearing a track jacket bearing the number 34 and position abbreviation "LB", but Isaiah Simmons considers himself to a man without a position.
That might be a bad thing in past eras of football — a prospect without a clear path, a wolf without a pack — but not in 2020. Defenders need to be able to do more than one thing well, and with the proliferation of hyper-athletic tight ends, a league-wide shift to passing first and the resulting increase in use of sub-packages, covering from sideline to sideline is essentially a requirement. Simmons sees himself as the perfect fit for today’s NFL, even if you can’t easily assign one or two letters to his roster spot.
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"I think it’s really beneficial for me," Simmons said, "because I know years ago it wasn’t good to be a position-less guy, but it’s become a benefit for me just for all the versatility that I’ll be able to do. Play linebacker, play safety, whatever it is, I feel like it just helps me out."
It certainly piques the interest of onlookers. At 6-foot-4 and 238 pounds, Simmons has a frame that could take on a multitude of transformations. He could put on 15-20 pounds and become a terror off the edge, or he could maintain his current appearance, build some good muscle and strength and serve as a rare talent in the middle of a defense that can play every down. He could even drop deep into coverage thanks to his experience playing safety.
With that in mind, Simmons’ first response to a question about an NFL player comparison for him shouldn’t have been all that surprising. The Olathe, Kansas, native selected a key figure in the Chiefs’ run to Super Bowl LIV who just so happened to develop into a multi-talented star at a school not all that far from Clemson.
"First name that comes to mind would be Tyrann Mathieu because he bounces around, he plays anywhere in the back seven," Simmons said.
The comparison to top NFL talent only begins at Mathieu. Simmons listed two additional and arguably even more notable names as models for who he wants to be as a defender.
"I model my game after a couple people," Simmons said. "If I have to go look at film of somebody to get something, it’d be like Von Miller just for pass rush, Jalen Ramsey just for man techniques and Tyrann Mathieu just because he plays around everywhere as well. I take bits and pieces from all them to kind of throw into my game."
Sugar, spice and everything nice to make Simmons into a unique talent with a ceiling that’s not only high, but might also be difficult to distinguish. As football goes, the copycat league almost always produces a counter for the latest hot trend, and Simmons could be the model for the answer to the increase in dual-threat quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes. Just as Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates ushered in the current era of phenomenally athletic and productive tight ends, Simmons could be the first of the new age of linebackers.
There are things he’ll have to clean up — quicker read and react time as a linebacker, improvement in run fits and shedding blocks (especially against stronger and faster linemen) — but his potential to serve as a rare defender who can cover, force turnovers and tackle in the open field is too much to overlook. The mental workload of playing multiple positions wasn’t too much for him in Brent Venables’ complex defense as Clemson, either, meaning he could have a quicker learning curve than the average high pick.
All signs are pointing to future success — even if they can’t direct us to his exact position.
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