During a conference call with the media on Monday, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit was asked which players in the 2020 NFL Draft might have the biggest impact on how the game is played in the NFL. A former quarterback himself, Herbstreit, of course, spoke about the quarterbacks, but then he shifted his thoughts to the defensive side and the name that came to his mind was Isaiah Simmons.
The Clemson linebacker redefined the definition of a “tweener.” Though he is listed as a linebacker, Simmons was a whole lot more at Clemson, as defensive coordinator Brent Venables built an entire scheme around the 6-foot-4, 238-pound linebacker.
“I might say, just for fun, I might say Isaiah Simmons, who’s like a Swiss-Army knife with how many different positions he can play,” Herbstreit said. “He can play a nickel, he can play linebacker, he can play deep safety …. he kind of does everything.
“I think whoever gets him is really going to have a guy that could help game the evolution of the way the defense is playing, as opposed to always focusing on the quarterback and the way the offense in the NFL continues to evolve and change.”
The NFL has become a passing league and the rules have dictated it. Twenty years ago, even 10 years ago, a player like Simmons and his talents might slip through the cracks. The label of “tweener” was a negative thing for some guys.
But it has been proven a player of Simmons’ skills set can work in the NFL if a team is willing to allow him to freelance and use his talents outside a typical system. The best example of Simmons, who he draws the closest comparison to, is former Pittsburgh Steelers great Troy Polamalu.
The Hall of Fame safety could do it all for the Steelers during his 12 years in the league (2004-’15). He flourished in Dick LeBeau’s system, becoming the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2010.
When Polamalu was in his prime, the Steelers led the NFL in just about every defensive category on their way to winning two Super Bowls and playing in a third. The 2008 Steelers’ defense is considered one of the best in the history of the NFL.
LeBeau’s scheme was complicated enough, but he allowed Polamalu to freelance, making it even more difficult for quarterbacks to figure out where the pressure was coming from and where Polamalu was on the field.
Simmons, who many consider to be a top 10 pick in Thursday’s NFL Draft, has also been compared to another Hall of Famer, who also happens to be a former Clemson Tiger. Brian Dawkins could deliver a blow to receivers, running backs and quarterbacks, but he was also a ball-hawking defender for the Philadelphia Eagles.
“I think the league’s going that way on both sides of the line of scrimmage,’’ Raiders general manager Mike Mayock said to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “You look at guys on offense that can play in the slot, play at running back, be H-backs. There’s not really a label for them.
“They’re just either dynamic players or they’re not. And then you start trying to match up with those guys on defense. You look at tight ends like [Travis] Kelce and [George] Kittle and [Zach] Ertz. Big guys who run fast. How do you match up against them? With dynamic players like Isaiah Simmons, that’s how. He’s played on the back end. He’s played at linebacker. He’s come off the edge. Really, I think the only limitations on him are the ones a defensive coordinator puts on him.’’
But if Simmons goes to the right team and to a defensive coordinator who uses his talents the way in which Venables did at Clemson, he could revolutionize defenses.
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