Somewhere between awe and exasperation lives Isaiah Simmons' game.
At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds with a 40-yard dash somewhere around running back Travis Etienne's time (4.3 seconds), the impossibility is the axle on which Clemson and Brett Venables' defensive madness spins. He is somehow in every place at every time, impossible to find because he's so multiple, impossible to miss because he's just so freakin' good. You consume his film and are confused by the results: How is he always around the football? How can he be tasked with such disparate responsibilities play to play,? How is he filling all of them?
And, critically: Will he be able to do this in the league?
The Clemson defense, like all things, was annihilated by the buzzsaw of LSU’s offense in the national championship on Monday. It gave up 42 points, nearly 10 yards per passing attempt on quarterback Joe Burrow's 463-yard night — and yet it somehow feels like they played well, and Simmons was the reason why. He was once again invariably where he needed to be, and wherever he was, he mattered tremendously. His performance crowned a season of much of the same impact, and left him with the impossible choice: return to chase that second title he came so close to or enter the NFL draft and take his singular talent to the next level.
Simmons is expected to enter the draft because he is expected to be a top-five pick — Adam Schefter went so far as to question if Simmons had done enough to supplant Ohio State EDGE Chase Young as the top defender off the board. But when skeptics hear the lofty stock projection, they respond with doubt, centered on a single question: Where do you play Simmons in the NFL?
It seems benign on the surface. It's a question that every prospect endures. South Carolina wide receiver Bryan Edwards was primarily an outside WR for the Gamecocks, but projects as a big slot early on in his NFL career. Louisiana-Lafayette right tackle Robert Hunt is going to be a guard in the league and Auburn EDGE Marlon Davidson a subpackage interior rusher.
While these shifts aren't huge, they acknowledge players may need to adjust their position to NFL-caliber competition — frequently, to better maximize their athletic traits and on-field skills. The question starts from a place of, "What do you do well, at your current position?" and progresses to wondering, "Would you then be more effective at a different spot?"
Simmons, however, is different. The implicit assumption isn't that he might be more effective at a different position in the league, it's that his position doesn't exist. Unlike Edwards, Hunt and Davidson, Simmons is compelled into a new role by the absence of his old one.
This assumption is half true. It's the other half that is dangerous.
Simmons' position on Clemson’s defense is difficult to define. Against read-option teams like Georgia Tech, he tended to align in the overhang role that developed out of the archaic "SAM" position to effectively read and attack the mesh point behind the line of scrimmage.
Against Ohio State, he became an "umbrella" or middle safety player. Simmons was responsible for completing the run fit to both sides of the formation while also playing the deep half, middle hole, or single high zones when the offense dropped back to pass.
In base defenses with more traditional linebackers on the field, he could flex out over No. 2 in the formation and carry size, speed or quickness anywhere he wanted to go in man coverage.
When playing from depth, Simmons was always a threat to blitz, and his explosiveness and length allowed him to win one-on-ones against offensive linemen.
And if you faced a mobile quarterback and didn't want to waste Simmons on a rush, you could spy him and let him clean up the mess created by your other pass-rushers.
To say Simmons' position doesn't exist at the NFL is true, in that no position would ask him to do all of these things. But of all the alignments and roles Simmons filled over his final season, only the middle safety role is unfamiliar to NFL defenses. Man coverage from the slot, run/pass conflict from the overhang, blitz from the SAM and QB spy from the A-gap are pretty standard jobs.
Drawing rigid lines that delineate the SAM from the MIKE from the WILL from the STAR from the DS from the CS will force a coach to pick a label to give Simmons, and accordingly encourages one to define his role. But it’s backward and ineffective. You don't want to take a position like MIKE and make Simmons fit into it; you want to take Simmons and make a position out of him.
The appropriate question is, "What do you want to ask Simmons to do?" No player has ever matched this degree of versatility in the era of modern defense. He is the skeleton key, the golden ratio.
So we cheerfully skip by the first question and arrive at, "What do you want Simmons to do?" The answer, again, maybe everything. Perhaps his best ability is his versatility and the confusion that causes on defense. This is the theory of Venables: The unyielding principle that defense is chaos and the aggressive restlessness of his corresponding defensive structure. Simmons is everywhere, he reveals no tendency and offers no weakness. In an explosion of fireworks, it's tough to follow one single arm of a blast through the flash and the bang.
If this is the case, then Simmons is in trouble. He feels like a defensive coordinator's best friend because he can do no wrong, no matter what he's asked to do. But coaches are not scouts; they don't view versatility with the same reverence. Simmons does everything for Clemson, but so do fellow safeties K'Von Wallace and Tanner Muse — to lesser degrees and efficacy, of course. For every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction. Whenever Simmons spins from a strong side No. 2 to the opposite deep half zone, other players must rotate as well to retain the defenses' structure. You either have a positionless defense, or you don't — there is no middle ground.
To fully unlock Simmons at the NFL level, you must treat him as Venables did. But Venables changed his front alignment, co-opting ideas from Iowa State and the Big 12, in order to maximize Simmons' roaming ability. Few, if any, defensive coordinators in the NFL show such willing flexibility. They have archetypes for their positions, and Simmons doesn't fit into any existing ones.
Alternatively, the 2018 Los Angeles Chargers' playoff defense of six defensive backs are available; perhaps the 2019 Dean Pees Ravens defense as well, which blitzes five or six on seemingly every play and spins secondary players hither and thither to confuse quarterbacks post-snap. These are the closest facsimiles we have to positionless defense, and they took commitment and time to build. Both have had some success, but neither has dominated.
So Simmons' best trait cannot be his versatility. He might be able to do everything, but defensive coordinators likely won't ask him to. They may ask him to transition to MIKE, and he'll enjoy the same rise as Tremaine Edmunds, who has grown with his freak athleticism as the focal point of the Bills’ defense. Edmunds sugars the A-gap before the snap and flies to a hook/curl zone in a blink; he confounds protection calls while still securing the hot route in coverage. They may ask him to move to box safety, and he'll challenge Derwin James for the most versatile safety in the league, chasing him in sack numbers, tackle for loss numbers and pass breakups. They may stick Simmons to WILL and he'll immediately supplant Fred Warner as the best young weakside runner in the league, with the underneath coverage ability to produce at a league-leading level.
These were highly-drafted players in recent drafts; none were top 10, and none were nearly the players in college that Simmons was. One position and its formulaic roles are not enough for Simmons, especially when you consider the suggested positions are linebacker and safety: two positions that are generally under-drafted and undervalued.
Can we even answer our titular question? Where do you play Isaiah Simmons, when you have all of these options, but no single one is enough? The answer moves, hopefully, with the personnel available on defense, the best players on the opposing offense and the defensive coaching staff. If Simmons can help you get your best 11 on the field, if he can help you takeaway Travis Kelce in the wild-card round, DeAndre Hopkins in the divisional round, and Lamar Jackson in the championship round, then he's worth anything you pay for him. But that requires an acceptance of the fringes, a willingness to evolve and re-evolve as circumstances change. His potential is boundless; it's only the boundaries of the defense that constrain his future.