Yahoo Sports' top 2020 NFL draft prospects, No. 6: Clemson LB-S Isaiah Simmons

Yahoo Sports


Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports
Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports

6. Clemson LB-S Isaiah Simmons

6-foot-4, 238 pounds 

Yahoo Sports draft grade: 6.33 — possible immediate starter.

TL;DR scouting report: Rare athlete with elite versatility who can impact games in coverage, as a blitzer and in run support

The skinny: A 3-star Rivals recruit, Simmons committed to the Tigers late in the process over Nebraska and Michigan. He took a redshirt year in 2016 and ran track, finishing 13th in the long jump at the ACC championships in the spring of 2017. As a redshirt freshman in 2017, Simmons played mostly free safety but started to display his range of skills at different spots as a backup, making 45 tackles (three for losses) and one sack in 14 games. He also was a standout on special teams.

In 2018, Simmons led team in tackles with 89 (nine of them for losses), made one interception (which he ran back for a touchdown), seven pass breakups and three forced fumbles for the national champions, starting 14 of 15 games at linebacker/nickel back.

As a redshirt junior in 2019, Simmons made 102 tackles (16 for losses), eight sacks, three interceptions, nine passes defended in 15 starts. He won the Butkus Award (nation's top linebacker) and was a finalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award, the Bronko Nagurski Award and the Lott IMPACT Trophies, and was named first-team AP All-America, ACC Defensive Player of the Year and first-team all-conference. 

Simmons, who turns 22 in July. He attended the scouting combine and performed all the drills except for the 3-cone, short shuttle and bench press. He performed the bench (20 reps) at Clemson’s pro day but stood on his combine workout numbers and opted not to perform in positional drills, citing a hamstring injury.

Upside: Probably the best athlete, pound for pound, in this year’s class — and maybe in the past few draft classes. Former track star who can run for days. Ran a 4.39 40-yard dash at 238 pounds. He’s one of only six players (at any position) 235 pounds or heavier to crack 4.4 at the combine since 2000. Also top 10th percentile in vertical jump (39 inches) broad jump (132 inches).

Tremendous height, weight and length for a college defensive back. You might not see a college DB come out in the next five years with a wingspan (81 7/8 inches) as long as his. Great definition and ideal proportions in his frame. Can’t can’t draw them up much better.

Rare versatility. Played more than 100 snaps last season at deep safety, slot corner, box safety/linebacker and as a blitzer. Also can walk out and play outside corner — did it a half dozen times in the national title game vs. LSU. Key part of Clemson’s special-teams units — truly a four-down weapon with the stamina to handle those duties in the NFL. Never needs to leave the field and never looks like he wants to.

Outstanding blitzer — it might be his best skill. Watch here as Simmons (No. 11) casually walks up into the box, times up the snap beautifully, and destroys the Syracuse QB:

Imagine Simmons coming full speed at you with nowhere to hide.
Imagine Simmons coming full speed at you with nowhere to hide.

This was a tremendous play from Simmons in the national semifinals against Ohio State, starting from a single-high safety spot, patiently stalking the route he appeared to know was coming and then sniping for the kill on the interception:

This is great range and instincts by Simmons on the INT.
This is great range and instincts by Simmons on the INT.

Tight end eraser — blanketed LSU’s Thaddeus Moss in the title game and allowed only seven catches for 74 yards and one TD last season. (The TD came on the final play of a two-TD win over Texas A&M). Could be used to match more athletic flex tight ends in the NFL.

LSU found ways to move Simmons away from the action when Clemson was in man defense, purposely lining its tight ends out wide, then throwing to the other side of the field and effectively taking him out of the play. That’s respect. 

Made his presence felt in every game this season. Outstanding stamina to keep his motor hot for four quarters. Almost never missed time with injury. A gamer with confidence to match his incredible skill.

Downside: Jack of all trades — but what’s his best spot? Role at Clemson was more like that of a safety, but many NFL people project him into more of a linebacker role in the pros.

Very little tape of Simmons shedding blocks as a true off-the-ball linebacker. Quick enough to sidestep many blockers, but can he operate in close quarters and disengage 30 plays a game? Hands (9 5/8 inches) on the smaller side — could be an issue when it comes to disengaging. 

Looked great in coverage and as a blitzer in the two playoffs games but less so as a run defender. Struggled to disengage from blocks, make proper fits and finish at the ball. Comes crashing into traffic at times without a plan. Will take some questionable angles to the ball at times — and sometimes lacks tackle discipline (see UNC game). 

Here’s the national title game against LSU, where Simmons (No. 11, lined up as the deep-middle safety) is in position to limit the damage on this screen at a critical juncture of the game. Instead, he flies right by LSU’s JaMarr Chase, who gains an extra 25 yards. No clue what Simmons was doing here:

Simmons goes flying right on by on the tackle attempt.
Simmons goes flying right on by on the tackle attempt.

Gets jumpy against play-action and the RPO game — some misreads on tape. Could struggle guarding some of the more physical tight ends or shiftier running backs in coverage. Had a little trouble with quicker and craftier slot receivers (see South Carolina vs. Shi Smith, Ohio State vs. K.J. Hill).

Simmons has great range at deep safety, but he doesn’t always have great coverage instincts for the position, can line up too deep at times and can struggle reading routes at the break point. Watch here against Texas A&M as WR Camron Buckley seems to freeze Simmons at the top of his route and get him to flatten too much and take a false step on what should have been a 65-yard Aggies TD with a better throw:

This should have been a TD — on Simmons' watch.
This should have been a TD — on Simmons' watch.

For a good idea of what Simmons can do as a linebacker, and against a power-running team, turn on the Boston College tape. He was used primarily in the box as a linebacker and blitzer that day, and the results were somewhat mixed. Simmons will freelance occasionally, as he did on this play against the Eagles, appearing to vacate the tight end in coverage to blitz:

Is Simmons freelancing here? It appears he lets his man, the tight end, go here.
Is Simmons freelancing here? It appears he lets his man, the tight end, go here.

Best-suited destination: Call him a linebacker, a safety, whatever … in a league where nickel is the new base, Simmons allows a defensive coordinator to mix and match calls without changing personnel in the back seven. He can cover, blitz, support the run — all very well, too.

The one thing we fear is that some NFL team tries to make Simmons a stack-and-shed linebacker 60 snaps a game, which would have been like asking Prince to play only ballads all night. He can do it well, sure, but why limit the man who can do it all?

Among the teams we think will be especially interested in Simmons’ services include any AFC North team (as a weapon to stop Lamar Jackson), any NFC West team (to combat Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson and that division’s great tight ends), the Carolina Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Arizona Cardinals, Las Vegas Raiders, New York Giants, Los Angeles Chargers, Philadelphia Eagles, Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns and Denver Broncos.

Did you know: Simmons’ dream school was Arkansas. He camped there, spoke at length with former Razorbacks assistant Sam Pittman and performed well in front of former head coach Bret Bielema.

But they never offered him a scholarship.

Nebraska did — but wanted him to play receiver. So did Michigan, which offered Simmons the chance to play both ways.

Then Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables swooped in after the Tigers lost three underclassman DBs and convinced Simmons to make the trek from Olathe, Kansas (just outside Kansas City) to South Carolina.

It worked out pretty well for both parties. Less so for Arkansas, Nebraska and Michigan.

They said it: “The hardest part about it is just the mental aspect, having to know what everybody else has to do. That was the most complicated thing I had to deal with. But I learn everything very fast and I feel like that’s what really benefitted me and helped me play at a high level.” 

— Simmons at the combine, on how he handled his myriad defensive assignments in college 

Player comp: Finding a comp for a unicorn is, well, extremely difficult. Physically and athletically speaking, there are only a handful of players in his realm — Tremaine Edmunds, Derwin James and Myles Jack come to mind.

But Simmons’ ceiling as a player might be Thomas Davis, a college safety who became a Pro Bowl linebacker. Simmons’ floor is harder to peg, but perhaps it’s somewhere on the Alec Ogletree/Shaq Thompson spectrum if he’s destined to play closer to the line of scrimmage.

Expected draft range: Top 10.

Previous prospect rankings: Nos. 100-91 | 90-81 | 80-71 | 70-66 | 65-61 | 60-56 | 55-51 | 50. DT Justin Madubuike | 49. CB Damon Arnette | 48. OT Ezra Cleveland | 47. WR KJ Hamler | 46. CB A.J. Terrell | 45. RB Cam Akers | 44. DL Ross Blacklock | 43. OT Josh Jones | 42. DT Jordan Elliott | 41. C Cesar Ruiz | 40. S Kyle Dugger | 39. EDGE Terrell Lewis | 38. WR Laviska Shenault Jr. | 37. S Grant Delpit | 36. Jonathan Taylor | 35. WR Brandon Aiyuk | 34. EDGE Zack Baun | 33. EDGE Yetur Gross-Matos | 32. CB Jeff Gladney | 31. QB Jordan Love | 30. CB Trevon Diggs | 29. EDGE A.J. Epenesa | 28. RB JK Dobbins | 27. WR Justin Jefferson | 26. WR Tee Higgins | 25. S Xavier McKinney | 24. WR Jalen Reagor | 23. CB Kristian Fulton | 22. RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire | 21. WR Denzel Mims | 20. LB Kenneth Murray | 19. RB D’Andre Swift | 18. QB Justin Herbert | 17. LB Patrick Queen | 16. WR Henry Ruggs III | 15. EDGE K’Lavon Chaisson | 14. WR Jerry Jeudy | 13. OT Mekhi Becton | 12. DT Javon Kinlaw | 11. OT Andrew Thomas | 10. OT Tristan Wirfs | 9. WR CeeDee Lamb | 8. OT Jedrick Wills Jr. | 7. CB CJ Henderson | 6. LB-S Isaiah Simmons | 5. DT Derrick Brown | 4. QB Tua Tagovailoa | 3. CB Jeffrey Okudah | 2. QB Joe Burrow | 1. Chase Young

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