Isaiah Simmons’ versatility is huge asset in NFL draft, but Clemson star’s fit leaves questions

INDIANAPOLIS – Isaiah Simmons has already learned that versatility can be a double-edged sword.

The Butkus Award winner as college football's top linebacker in 2019, he is widely expected to be a top-10 selection in this year's NFL draft.

Yet until he finally landed on Clemson's radar – defensive coordinator Brent Venables' ties to Kansas State, near Simmons' home, were key – the three-star recruit was struggling to get national attention, largely because he was busy earning state titles for Olathe High School in the long jump as a junior and senior rather than attending offseason football camps.

"Luckily Clemson came, and Coach (Dabo) Swinney and Coach Venables put their trust in me, and the rest has been history," Simmons said Thursday at the NFL scouting combine.

He would make more history if he's one of the first three picks this April, which would position him as Clemson's highest-drafted player ever. (Four Tigers have gone fourth overall, including Clelin Ferrell to the Raiders last year.)

Simmons, the ACC defensive player of the year and a first-team All-American last season, is banking that his ability to play multiple positions boosts his stock given the increasing value of players like Tyrann Mathieu and Derwin James at the NFL level.

Venables, one of the preeminent defensive minds in the college ranks, initially used Simmons at defensive back (mostly safety or in the slot) before the multi-talented defender settled in at linebacker – though he'd line up both inside and on the edge.

"I believe anybody who can play defense for him can play defense anywhere," Simmons said of Venables, "just for how complex it is and the demands that he puts on all of us. He honestly just prepares all of us for moments like this."

There were plenty of big moments in 2019, when Simmons finished with 104 tackles (16½ for losses), eight sacks, three interceptions and eight pass break-ups.

Asked what position he plays, Simmons simply says: "Defense."

Asked how he's best deployed, he replied, "I would do everything I did in college, just kinda like a Swiss Army knife – move me around because then I'm really able to really show what I can do. I wouldn't say I'm really tied down to one position. Coach Venables, he really used me in a really special way that most people aren't able to be used.

"I mean, I like getting interceptions just as much as I like getting sacks."

Yet as valuable as players like Mathieu, James and even 230-pound Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard are, lacking a true position in the NFL – or at least a skill that stands out regardless of designation – can also be a drawback.

"The idea of (positional versatility) is fascinating for people, but the actual execution – there's just not that many players that can really fill that role of doing those things," former New York Giants vice president of player personnel Marc Ross told USA TODAY Sports. "Can you find a role for him?"

Ross cited 2017 first-rounder Jabrill Peppers, who came out of Michigan without a defined position and has struggled to make an impact both with the Cleveland Browns, who drafted him, and Giants.

"Using Isaiah Simmons as the example this year, (Clemson) played him at single-high safety sometimes. He'll never do that in the NFL," opined Ross. "If he did that in the NFL, offensive coordinators would say, 'Throw at him.' 

"They won't put him in those positions in the NFL."

It is hard to envision Simmons, who measured 6-4 and 238 pounds, sliding into secondary roles much, if ever, as a pro. He'll be doing linebacker drills this weekend at Lucas Oil Stadium but acknowledged he hasn't been asked to work out as a defensive back.

Yet his athleticism can't be denied. He proudly announced he beat highly regarded Clemson running back Travis Etienne in the 40-yard dash despite losing a longer race to him. That kind of talent seems to virtually guarantee Simmons a very early phone call on draft night.

It’s about time for part 2 ?

"(W)hen you have offenses trying to manipulate personnel and get certain groups on the field – like the Ravens have done a masterful job where they have the tight ends that they can put you in certain sets and then split the tight ends out – you better have more versatile players that can do multiple things," said NFL Network chief draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah.

"So with a guy like Isaiah Simmons, whether you want to list him as a linebacker or safety, I know you plug him into that defensive scheme and week by week you can deploy him in different ways depending on what the strength of your opponent is. That's why he has so much value. And putting these guys in little position boxes I think that's going to go away eventually."

Simmons, who said he'd play up to five positions in a game for Clemson, co-signed that analysis.

"The game is evolving. The name of the game now is stopping tight ends. Something has to be done to stop the Travis Kelces and George Kittles out there," he said.

"Linebackers playing man (coverage) on running backs. The game's no longer a 250-pound linebacker, it's more guys that can run side to side and are able to cover. It's just such a necessity now with the tight ends and running backs."

He likes to model his game after Mathieu – it doesn't hurt that Simmons grew up rooting for the Chiefs – but looks to Jalen Ramsey to hone his cover skills and watches Von Miller's pass rushing moves.

"The way that the game has widened out and gotten more space, you've got to find smaller, faster linebackers or safeties who can take those guys' places," Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer told USA TODAY Sports," and can really play in the back end, but they do a lot of damage at the line of scrimmage and blitzing and pressure."

From Simmons' perspective, the hardest part of playing at Clemson was learning the various defensive assignments from a mental standpoint, not performing them on the field. At this point, he has little concern he'll be victimized by a "jack of all trades, master of none" label.

"I think I can play in any scheme," he said.


Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis

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