Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
— The two stars angling to be the best receiver of the 2020 draft class.
— Could this rising prospect sneak into the top half of the first round?
But first, a look at how to maximize a tantalizing hybrid defensive prospect …
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The more you can do …
That phrase has been uttered in NFL meeting rooms for years, based on the universal belief that versatility both enhances a player’s opportunity to make his mark and gives coaches more deployment options in an ultra-competitive league. A subtle shift to position-less football has prompted more coaches and executives to covet hybrid prospects, due to their potential impact at a variety of spots.
In recent years, we’ve seen guys like Minkah Fitzpatrick (picked 11th overall in 2018) and Haason Reddick (picked 13th overall in 2017) earn first-round grades due to their explosive athleticism and versatility as blue-chip college players. Each flashed disruptive potential at a number of spots at their respective schools, and the scouting community expected each player to create havoc as hybrid defensive playmakers. The jury remains out as to whether Fitzpatrick and Reddick’s coaches will ever truly max out their versatility at this level; Fitzpatrick was so-so in Miami, then came to life after a mid-season trade to the Steelers in 2019, while Reddick has yet to break out with the Cardinals. Nevertheless, that won’t stop the scouting community from valuing potential hybrids on draft day.
"Versatility is huge in our league," said an AFC general manager. "If guys can play multiple spots, it helps with the roster construction and gives the coaches options with the 46-man roster on game day. Plus, it allows creative coaches to come up with different packages and schemes to put the team in the best position to win each week."
That’s why Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons has been widely touted as one of the best players in the 2020 class among the scouting community, according to the scouts that I’ve talked with. Evaluators are not only smitten with his explosive athletic attributes and playmaking potential as a second-level defender, but they are salivating at the possibility of adding a high-end Swiss Army knife to the roster.
According to Pro Football Focus, Simmons logged 100-plus snaps at five different defensive positions in 2019 (116 at outside linebacker, 299 at inside linebacker, 262 at slot cornerback, 132 at free safety and 100 at strong safety), making a handful of disruptive plays at each spot. The 6-foot-4, 238-pound defender — who understands the advantage his versatility creates — is a dynamic player with outstanding sideline to sideline range and a nose for the ball. Simmons displays elite coverage skills at a variety of positions, which makes him a defensive coordinator’s dream as a second-level defender. He can man the middle of the field as a post player or float from hash to boundary as a half-field defender in a two-deep scheme.
As a slot defender, Simmons flashes enough athleticism, agility and transition skills to shadow tight ends or big-bodied slot receivers down the seams while also showcasing sound instincts and awareness in zone coverage. The combination of versatility and athleticism is uncommon for a 230-plus pound defender, particularly one who excels playing between the tackles.
At linebacker, Simmons is at his best when given the freedom to hunt the ball. He has rare speed and stop-start quickness, and that enables him to run around blockers and corral ball-carriers in the backfield. Simmons is an effective blitzer from the second level, with the kind of explosiveness that makes him hard to slow down at the point of attack. He is dynamic, explosive and instinctive on the move, and he has the it factor to create disruption at every turn.
In terms of areas where one could be critical of Simmons, while he’s a great player, the fact that he has played so many spots makes it hard to peg him to one position. Setting aside the benefits of being a jack of all trades, it’s tough to master any one role when you’re constantly bounced around from play to play. Additionally, all that switching likely engendered a sense of freedom, which could be difficult to rein in at the NFL level.
"Simmons is an outstanding player who is capable of playing any position on the second level," said an AFC defensive assistant. "Whether it’s in the post or in the box, he can make an impact from anywhere on the field. However, when a guy has been given the freedom to play wherever he wants, you wonder if he’s going to pout when he’s locked into one position.
"How will he handle it if he’s a safety and the linebackers aren’t getting it? How will you react to playing linebacker and seeing the safeties getting all of the action? Sometimes it’s hard for a ‘jack of all trades’ to be content mastering one. You better have a plan for him that works for him, or it could be a problem down the road."
The questions surrounding Simmons’ transition to the NFL made me think about the plight of Thomas Davis during my time with the Carolina Panthers. I was part of the front office that drafted him 14th overall in 2005 with the thought he’d be a safety/linebacker for a team that was one season removed from a Super Bowl appearance. However, we didn’t fully have a plan in place to utilize him, and we wasted his talents during his first few years in the league, before he settled in at linebacker, becoming a three-time Pro Bowler and one-time All-Pro.
Looking at Simmons’ potential, I believe he is best suited to play WILL linebacker (weak side) in a 4-3 defense. He could thrive as a nickel linebacker and play in the slot when the team stays in its base defense against "11" personnel (one running back, one tight end and three receivers). Additionally, Simmons could be deployed as a matchup option against dynamic tight ends, to neutralize their effectiveness in the passing game.
With the Clemson standout also flashing explosive pass rush skills from the second level, he could be a unique defensive weapon as a pro. If a creative defensive coordinator can come up with a clear plan for utilizing Simmons as a multi-faceted playmaker, he is well worth a top-five pick. However, the plan is critical — otherwise, Simmons could be a ‘jack of all trades’ that fails to master any one skill as a pro.
JEUDY VS. LAMB: Who’s the draft’s top WR?
In Jeudy, coaches and scouts see a polished pass catcher with a game that’s ideally suited for the No. 1 receiver spot, based on his refined route-running ability and knack for getting open. He is a silky-smooth route runner with the capacity to win at the line with a variety of releases and stems that makes it hard for defenders to maintain hip-pocket leverage down the field.
Additionally, Jeudy varies his speed and tempo, particularly getting in and out of his breaks, to create significant separation at the top of his routes. No. 4’s ability to win consistently on the perimeter will not only endear him to veteran quarterbacks who prefer throwing with touch, timing and anticipation, but it will prompt creative offensive coordinators to move him around the formation to take advantage of mismatches in space. With Jeudy also showcasing electric running skills with the ball in his hands, the Alabama standout is the kind of prototypical WR1 that can dominate the league as the focal point of a passing game.
"The kid can do it all," said an NFC wide receiver coach. "He’s a natural No. 1 receiver with excellent route-running ability and playmaking potential. He can run every route in the book, and he is spectacular with the ball in his hands. … I think he can come in and make an immediate impact as a No. 1 receiver, because he’s polished and looks like he’s capable of coming in and moving around. That’s hard to find."
Lamb is an athletic playmaker with outstanding ball skills. He is one of the best contested-catch guys that I’ve ever scouted, and his hand-eye coordination is off the charts. As a big-play specialist, Lamb combines his exceptional pass-catching skills with explosive running ability in the open field. No. 2 is a threat to score whenever he touches the ball, exhibiting rare balance, body control and toughness while running through arm tackles on the perimeter. Lamb’s running skills are the stuff of legend, and offensive coaches will have to create Get the ball to No. 2 plays for the game plan.
"He’s a monster," said an AFC wide receiver coach. "He’s special with the ball in his hands. He can score from anywhere on the field, and that’s important in a league where scoring points is the priority. … I like his ball skills and overall explosiveness. He’s a game-changer."
Lamb is a "catch-and-run" specialist who is ideally suited to play in a scheme that features quick-rhythm throws (slants, quicks, bubble screens, shallow crosses and digs) and selective vertical shots. He primarily does his damage after the catch, and play-callers need to have a host of "touch" plays on the call sheet to maximize his potential as a big-play specialist. That said, Lamb flashes some DeAndre Hopkins-like skills as a No. 1 receiver, and the three-time All-Pro has certainly done well for himself in Houston.
If I had to pick one of these two receivers to build a passing game around, I would opt for Jeudy, due to his versatility and route-running ability. The Alabama standout has a game that’s built for the role, and I believe his style fits any system.
TOP-15 PICK? One prospect who could go much higher than most realize
With the mock draftification of the football-watching world, everyone thinks they know how the first round will play out. But every April brings surprises, with players going much higher or lower than groupthink anticipated. Who predicted Clelin Ferrell would go No. 4 overall in last year’s draft? Where will the stunning selection occur two months from now?
Well, if you’re looking for a sleeper top-15 pick, look no further than Penn State DE Yetur Gross-Matos. The 6-foot-5, 266-pound edge defender hasn’t garnered a lot of national buzz as one of the banner prospects in the 2020 class, but he’s creeping up draft boards, with more evaluators beginning to dig a little deeper into his tape.
"He’s a really good player," an NFC senior executive told me. "He has size, length and skills. Plus, he plays hard and has a knack for getting to the quarterback.
"I like him. I like him a lot."
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Gross-Matos entered the draft after a solid three-year run at Penn State that resulted in 111 career tackles, 19 sacks and 37 tackles for loss. He exhibited outstanding hand skills as a pass rusher with a strong push-pull maneuver and an assortment of rip moves that enable him to win against overaggressive edge blockers. Gross-Matos’ ability to set up and sequence his moves is uncommon for a young player, particularly an athletic rusher with B+ movement skills and agility. Most young rushers opt for speed moves or attempt to overpower blockers with brute force, but Gross-Matos uses technique and savvy to win consistently off the edge.
Those same skills and techniques also enable the Penn State standout to shine as a run defender. Gross-Matos flashes "stack and shed" ability at the point of attack, while also exhibiting disruptive potential on angles and stunts. He has a knack for running down ball carriers from behind, and his high-revving motor should make him an effective three-down defender on the edges.
"I like the way that he plays," another NFC executive said. "He competes and flashes some disruptive potential. He’s not quite a finished product, but he has potential. … He’s a good player."
Now, in Indy, Gross-Matos will certainly be asked about being named in a lawsuit brought by a former Penn State player that alleges hazing in the football program. And in terms of his on-field performance, skeptics will question his first-step quickness and the explosiveness of his athleticism. But Gross-Matos’ technical skills and non-stop effort could make him a consistent 10-sack guy at the next level. Looking at the Penn State standout closely on tape, I can envision him blossoming into a Jason Pierre-Paul-like playmaker off the edge. It might take a year or two for Gross-Matos to settle into his role and add enough tools to the toolbox to dominate off the edge, but he certainly flashes enough potential as a young player to warrant consideration as a fringe blue-chip talent.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.
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