The New York Giants made promising moves this offseason to improve one of the worst defenses in the league. While adding James Bradberry and Blake Martinez were major steps forward, the Giants’ defense lacks an elite playmaker. That’s where Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons comes into play.
Simmons was a multi-faceted weapon for Clemson’s defense. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables shifted Simmons around from corner, to safety, to linebacker, to EDGE. Simmons was a catalyst for causing chaos.
As an elite athlete, Simmons brings a rare blend of size and speed to the position of linebacker. Simmons as a prospect can turn into a Swiss Army knife for defensive coordinators in the NFL.
Prospect: Isaiah Simmons Linebacker/Safety, Clemson
Games watched: vs. LSU (2020), vs. Ohio State (2020), vs. North Carolina (2019)
Red flags: None
Games played: 44 games played
Tackles for a loss: 28.5
Forced fumbles: 6
Best: Athleticism, range, coverage
Worst: Block shedding
Projection: Starting SAM linebacker or strong safety
Simmons’ strongest attribute is his coverage ability. As a converted safety, his elite coverage instincts and movement skills carry over. Despite having the size of a lumbering linebacker, Simmons has the hip fluidity of a cornerback. He can turn and redirect into zone coverage efficiently. When dropping into zone he has strong vision to dissect the passing concepts in front of him.
The most notorious play that illustrates what Simmons can do in coverage was an interception he had against Ohio State. Venables lined Simmons up as a free safety over the top of the defense. Simmons used his elite range and speed to track a pass from the middle of the field all the way to the sideline.
To add to his rare skills, Simmons can easily cover receivers and running backs. His 4.3 speed is evident when he follows players who are supposed to be significantly faster than him step for step. Venables was so confident in Simmons that he frequently lined him up at outside or slot corner.
As a run defender, Simmons has room to improve. It’s clear that 2019 was his first year playing linebacker. At times Simmons will misjudge angles and where the ball is going. He’s a fairly consistent tackler thanks to his long arms.
His block shedding is his most glaring issue. You can tell he has little experience fighting with offensive linemen and tight ends. For an explosive player, he doesn’t use his strength properly to get off blocks. Instead of stacking and shedding, Simmons will rely too heavily on his quickness to get away. This does work from time to time, but if a lineman latches on Simmons isn’t going anywhere. On successful block shedding instances, Simmons will rely on torquing and tossing instead of good technique.
Thanks to his burst, Simmons is a missile when blitzing. On delayed blitzes, he flies up field quicker than lineman can react. While some talent evaluators talk up Simmons as a pass rusher, he doesn’t do it well enough for him to be considered a threat. A number of his sacks came from being unblocked. When he actually has to rush the edge, Simmons lacks a plan or move skillset. None of this is too concerning considering he’ll project as an off-ball linebacker.
Overall Grade: 7.1 Pro Bowler [Grading Scale]
A common trend in college football is moving safeties to linebacker. Often with seniors graduating, defensive coordinators will get creative and shift experienced players at other positions to linebacker. Strong safeties will make the transition to SAM or WILL and sometimes dominate because of their speed. Simmons is the extreme example of that.
Watching Simmons cover is exciting because of his multi-year background as a safety. However, because he played only one season at linebacker he’s fully developed in multiple parts of his game. Simmons feels more like a really big strong safety than a linebacker.
The positive to this is that he’ll be an elite linebacker on passing downs. Teams are always looking for players who can stay on the field every down, and Simmons fits that bill. He needs to improve his full skillset as a linebacker before he can take that next step.
Simmons has enormous upside as a prospect. If his block shedding and vision against the run improve to the level of his pass coverage, he can become a top 5 player at his position. If not, he’s better off moving back to safety.