One of the notable story-lines of the 2019 NFL Draft was the talent selected from the Clemson Tigers defense. Within the first 17 picks, we saw three Clemson defensive lineman taken in Clelin Ferrell (#4), Christian Wilkins (#13) and Dexter Lawrence (#17). On top of that highly touted trio, Trayvon Mullen went 40th overall and Austin Bryant went 117 overall.
With the graduation of so many defensive standouts, one would expect the defending national champions to see regression on that side of the ball.
Not so fast, my friend(s).
Clemson has plenty of talent returning on that side, most notably Isaiah Simmons, who may just have been the best pro prospect on Clemson’s defense last season.
Simmons led Clemson in tackles with 97, including 9.5 for loss. He added 7 pass breakups, 3 forced fumbles, 1.5 sacks and a pick-six. If you’re wondering why I haven’t said his position yet, it’s because, well... It’s complicated.
Simmons is listed at 6’4 and 225 pounds, a unique size for any player on the defensive side. His role is ever changing, and he’s asked to be as multiple as possible. Simmons is a converted safety who will play Sam and Will linebacker, be walked up on the edge and be tasked with playing the overhang against certain formations. He’s spent time as the nickelback as well.
His skill-set and frame are intriguing, but pale in comparison to his natural athleticism. Check out some athletic feats that Simmons has put together this offseason:
In order to get a better feel for Simmons, I turned on the All-22 of Clemson’s ACC Championship game against Pittsburgh. The Pitt Panthers offense under head coach Pat Narduzzi has been known for stretching defenses horizontally, putting defenders like Simmons in constant binds. Add in the enhanced setting against a good football team, and this game felt like the correct one to dive into.
For a player who is basically a part-time linebacker, Isaiah Simmons does a great job of setting his edge. He’s able to maintain outside leverage while keeping the outside half of his body free from contact, remaining square and closing on ball carriers who dare race to the sideline. Equally as important, Simmons sets a “strong” or “hard” edge, meaning that he stays tight to the action as the end man on the line of scrimmage. That allows his fellow defenders to collapse on running lanes or chase down the play from the backside.
Both from his linebacker spot and overhang position, his run fits on the edge help the rest of Clemson’s defense operate.
Important for any player who is tasked with playing in space, Simmons is formidable in coverage. The converted safety is comfortable covering slots or tight ends, and his straight-line speed is utilized when he’s asked to cover vertical routes. On this particular play, notice how Simmons is able to match the route vertically while closing down on the horizontal space between himself and the receiver. That “squeezes” the route towards the sideline, and would have made for a more difficult throw.
Simmons has solid ball skills and closing speed when covering the flats, evidenced by his 7 pass breakups on the season. On the next play, he takes the proper angle towards the receiver that prevents him from being exposed by any type of double move. When he sees the quarterback starting to throw, Simmons closes on the receiver and is able to get a deflection on the pass.
While the ball eventually lands right in the receiver’s grasp, it was for a minimal gain because of Simmons' angle and ball skills.
Simmons generally wasn’t tasked with rushing the passer that often, as Clemson utilized his coverage ability more often than not. However, Simmons showed positive traits as a blitzer when necessary. Coming from depth, Simmons is under control and working to close the pocket by bull rushing the running back. When the quarterback steps up and works to escape the pocket, Simmons had the awareness to disengage and re-trace his path. The result was a forced fumble that landed right in the hands of the graceful Christian Wilkins.
Where Simmons Can Improve
Simmons could have declared for the 2019 NFL Draft after finishing his redshirt sophomore season last year, but decided a return to Clemson was in his best interest. While he likely would have been a highly sought after draft pick, there were some inconsistencies in his game that he’ll be looking to improve with an extra year in college.
One of those inconsistencies came with his pad level while closing down space on a ball carrier. Despite being the leading tackler on Clemson, I’d like to see him play lower to the ground and gather his feet before attempting tackles in space. On the following play, he hesitates instead of gathering his feet and buzzing his feet to close on the ball carrier. The result is an attempted tackle at shoulder level, and a bad miss that nearly leads to a touchdown.
One other area where Simmons could show improvement is with his discipline at the line of scrimmage. Over-aggressive at times and not immune to a misread, the following play is a clear example of an area where Simmons needs to get better. He shoots directly into the backfield on the snap, not realizing that the tight end is working to reach him. As Simmons works towards the quarterback, he opens up a wide running lane because of how deep he got in the backfield.
Not only was his run discipline poor on this play, but if it were a rollout play-action pass, his path towards the quarterback inside of the tight end was where Pittsburgh would have wanted him.
Simmons is a dynamic athlete, having won consecutive state championships in the long jump while in High School. He’s parlayed that versatile athleticism into a swiss army knife type of role for Clemson's defense. That is going to intrigue NFL teams, and his well-rounded production speaks for itself.
While there are areas for hims to improve, an extra year in college should help remedy those issues. On top of that, he already thrives in a lot of areas. With Simmons in the fold, don’t expect too much regression from Clemson’s defense in 2019.