Former Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick already earned the "skeleton key" title in his Futures feature two years ago. It would be unfair to Fitzpatrick, who has proven himself every bit as skilled and versatile in the NFL as he was in college, to shell out that very same title to another player so quickly. If anyone since Fitzpatrick deserves to be held in that same light, however, it is Clemson's do-it-all defensive weapon Isaiah Simmons.
Linebacker, free safety, nickel defender, edge -- the more you rattle off all the positions Simmons played over his time at Clemson, the more Anthony Adams' Cream E Biggums parody just feels like he is talking about Simmons. It is almost impossible to overstate Simmons' flexibility as a player considering he played at least 100 snaps at five different positions in college, featuring primarily as a linebacker in 2017 and 2018 before moving more toward a nickel and safety position in 2019.
Trying to run through Simmons' ability at the numerous positions he plays feels like trying to eat an elephant. Each of his different roles could probably fill an entire article on its own. With that in mind, there is a lot to get to, so let's go from the ground up in observing Simmons' different positions and skill set.
Simmons (11) is over the Y-off tight end to the offense's left. For all intents and purposes, Simmons is an edge defender in a stand-up position like a traditional 3-4 outside linebacker. Since both Simmons and the defensive lineman next to him (K.J. Henry, 5) both step inside right away, it's possible the two players were stunting inside as pass-rushers. Regardless of whether that is the case, Simmons identifies a run to his direction mid-step and redirects himself to be able to work the outside shoulder of the left tackle, allowing him to split the gap between the tackle and the tight end. While Simmons does not directly make the play, he forces the running back wide into the waiting arms of a linebacker (Chad Smith, 43).
As an edge defender, it's no secret that Simmons will also have to defend the option in the NFL. Every division in football has at least one quarterback who is a threat to run the option, so being able to defend it is a must. Option defenders can be taught a number of different techniques to handle the mesh point, but the ideal defender can attack the mesh point directly and make a split-second reaction to where the ball is going. Doing so requires high-end explosive athletic ability and an instant trigger. Simmons checks both requirements with ease.
Simmons is again playing to the offense's left. In this instance, he keeps his shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage and slides toward the middle of the formation as far as he can in order to dissuade the handoff. As soon as the quarterback pulls the ball, Simmons changes direction and almost instantly leaps toward the quarterback, bringing him down for a big loss. Louisville's quarterback never even crosses Simmons' outside shoulder until he's being tackled, which is a testament to how ridiculous Simmons' change of direction can be.
Now let's take a step back and look at Simmons' run defense when he has to come downhill from a safety position. Playing downhill and flying sideline-to-sideline requires more open-field speed than playing down near the line of scrimmage does, and a willingness to run full tilt into a car crash. Once again, neither of those things is an issue for Simmons.
Here Simmons is playing a deep safety. It is not his responsibility on this play to stop the ballcarrier at or near the line of scrimmage. Clemson should have all their gaps covered to the run side, but safety K'Von Wallace (12) gets beat around the outside by the blazing speed of Louisville wide receiver Tutu Atwell, the ballcarrier on this jet sweep. With Louisville's outside receiver cutting inside to block safety Nate Turner (24), Atwell finds a crease and has a chance to burn down the sideline for a massive gain, if not a touchdown. However, Simmons recognizes the jet sweep right away and high-tails over to Atwell with a fairly acute, aggressive angle. Simmons isn't trying to take the safest angle to the ball here; he's trying to take the fastest angle to the ball to stop the play for as few yards as possible and shows off the necessary speed to do it. That isn't a flashy play on Simmons' part necessarily, but against most mortal safeties, Atwell would have scooted to a much more devastating gain.
Now for the opposite: Simmons crashing directly downhill. Simmons is lined up just inside the left hash as a middle safety. Right at the snap, Simmons begins to move downhill while shuffling inside just enough to squeeze himself tight to the outside shoulder of the defensive linemen in front of him. The running back cuts it to the defensive lineman's outside shoulder and right into Simmons, who sticks the runner dead in the strike zone to bring him down for a gain of 2 or 3 yards.
As impressive as Simmons' work in run defense and as a tackler is, it is his work all over the field as a coverage defender that makes him a nightmare for opposing offensive coordinators. Simmons can line up at every possible coverage spot and be effective, including at outside cornerback in certain situations. As with all players, Simmons is certainly better at some jobs than others, but he at least hits the baseline of functionality in just about every reasonable coverage role.
As a linebacker/safety hybrid, the natural role for Simmons is to cover tight ends. Being that Simmons has the physicality of a linebacker and the athleticism of a safety, he is the ideal matchup versus tight ends who are often too athletic for linebackers and too physical for safeties.
Here is Simmons in the National Championship Game against LSU (before things unraveled for Clemson). Simmons is playing over tight end Thaddeus Moss (81) as the No. 3 (innermost) receiver to the trips side. As the play rolls, it's clear LSU is in a variation of Stick in which the No. 2 receiver runs a fade and the No. 1 runs a short stop route, rather than the traditional way of having No. 2 run a quick out route and the No. 1 clearing vertically. Simmons sees Moss break outside on the stick route and jams his foot in the ground to close the gap. Though LSU quarterback Joe Burrow throws an accurate and on-time ball, Simmons' closing speed and vine-like arms allow him to reach over Moss' inside shoulder to swat the pass down.
And here's a clip from Simmons two weeks prior in the semifinals game against Ohio State. Simmons is lined up over the point man of Ohio State's bunch set to the left, who happens to be a tight end in this case. Ohio State tries to run a Spin concept with the tight end and the innermost receiver from the bunch, but Simmons and his fellow Clemson defender shut both routes down. Simmons does well to play the vertical stem with patience and then immediately look to latch onto the tight end once he declares where the route is breaking.
Much of Simmons' time at Clemson was also spent as a true nickel player when opponents were in 2x2 sets. Since Simmons effectively has all the movement skills of a traditional safety, he has no issue lining up over the slot receiver and matching him vertically.
Simmons is playing over the slot receiver to the bottom of the screen in both of these clips. In the first clip versus Texas A&M, Simmons shows off his hips and ability to recover. As he's playing the vertical stem, Simmons is trying to cheat to be able to close inside, but when the route breaks outside, he quickly makes a "speed turn" to flip his hips around and close in on the receiver again. In the following clip against Ohio State, Simmons takes a different approach by slightly turning his back to the field and cutting the receiver's vertical stem short. Simmons jams the receiver at about 8 yards, then bullies him into the sideline, effectively taking him out of the play.
If the expectation for Simmons' ability as a slot defender is to be up to par with the league's best pure nickel cornerbacks, then he won't meet the mark. Some of the better slot receivers will be able to work him in and out of breaks, which Simmons can have some issues with considering his height. However, if the expectation is that Simmons will be an above-average nickel defender who can comfortably handle tight ends just as well as wide receivers, which is where the bar should be set, then he is going to be just fine.
The final gemstone in Simmons' Infinity Gauntlet of positional versatility is his play as a deep middle defender. Be it dropping from a linebacker spot, rotating over from a split-safety alignment, or just straight-up playing as the deep safety from the start, Simmons has both the range and the vision to play the deep middle portion of the field.
In this clip, Simmons is in a middle safety position only about 10 yards off the ball, which is much shallower than a traditional deep-middle safety would line up. Simmons jogs back at the snap with his eyes locked onto the quarterback's. Once the quarterback's eyes move to the two vertical stems, Simmons follows and quickly determines that he needs to split the difference between the two receivers. Simmons remains split between the two routes until the quarterback starts to chuck it down the field, which gives Simmons the green light to chase the ball. While the ball ends up a smidgen underthrown, there should be no way a "linebacker" can clear 20 yards out of a turn at the drop of a hat and get under this ball -- and yet Simmons gets there right on time for the pass deflection.
Of course, no summary of Simmons' game is complete without mention of his absurd interception against Ohio State. Just before the snap, Simmons trots back like he is going to be the deep-middle safety for a Cover-1 or Cover-3 look. Once the play gets rolling, Simmons rotates to a split-safety position while Nate Turner (24) rotates up to play the opposite half of the field. Simmons catches the quarterback's eyes looking down the sideline while he is already on his way over there, so he hightails over to that side and undercuts the route for an interception.
On that play, quarterback Justin Fields almost certainly assumed it was a one-high safety structure, so he thought he had one-on-one on the boundary. Thanks to defensive coordinator Brent Venables' creativity and Simmons' coverage range, Clemson was able to bait one of the best quarterbacks in the country into just his second interception of the entire season.
Every time a player like Simmons comes around, the question of where he should be played gets thrown about as if a player like Simmons needs to be locked into one spot anyway. No, Simmons can not probably play eight different positions at a high level in the NFL the same as he did in college, but he can certainly wear a number of different hats as both a linebacker and as a safety/nickel defender.
Much of the value in Simmons, as well as in guys such as Minkah Fitzpatrick and Derwin James, is that their positional versatility will naturally work itself out. Once the team that drafts Simmons starts experimenting with things in training camps and OTAs, it will become clear sooner rather than later which roles Simmons will be assuming. With Simmons already proving himself to be a stud at a plethora of different roles in college, it will not be difficult to find a handful that he can make work in the NFL. Every team not in the market for a quarterback or Chase Young should be considering Simmons with its first-round pick.