You wanna watch a player take over a game? Let’s watch Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons against the Minnesota Vikings early in the 2020 season. Here are just *some* of the highlights.
Now, admittedly, Dakota Dozier (78) isn’t the best guard that the NFL has ever seen—but he was still the full-season starter for the Vikings. I mention that because it’s easy to assume Simmons ended his career off of these clips.
At Mississippi State, Simmons’ size, power, and explosiveness detailed a first-round player. But draft stock doesn’t end at the field’s edge. Teams did their homework on a malicious mischief charge from Simmons’ senior year in high school, when he was caught on video striking a woman. As front offices weighed Simmons’ character now out of college, as well as the effects of a pre-draft ACL tear, it was tough to determine if Simmons would really be a first-round selection.
The Titans took that risk (as they have often done with early picks under general manager Jon Robinson), and Simmons is truly paying off for them. He’s a wrecking ball of a penetrator who is at his best when asked to play free and quick in one gap. Even when he gets combo blocks and misdirection, he’s so disruptive and powerful that the ricochets of his collisions can disrupt blocking schemes and affect running back timing. Simmons really just blows stuff up in the running game, and as a pass-rusher, can immediately affect pocket integrity in similar ways.
One of the complaints about Simmons coming out of college was his inability to finish those plays that he disrupts, and that remains a problem in the pros. Simmons gets so oriented on vertical push and beating his block that he will work beyond an impactful level, settling with finishing near the quarterback and failing to bring him down.
Playing with a better sense of control and pacing is not an uncommon complaint and necessity for young players, especially ones who play such a physical game as Simmons. But within the structure of the Titans defense, it can be problematic. The Titans two-gap a fair bit on the interior, and when they work with two down linemen, Simmons is playing a 2-technique over the guard. That requires a lot of discipline and technique to keep ‘backers clean; a lot of patience and timing to play multiple gaps. Sometimes Simmons struggles there.
Even as the Titans put Simmons into a slower role across the 2020 season as they hunted for any saving grace on offense, Simmons also just started to slow down himself. It was a weird season for a lot of players with COVID-19 protocols, abbreviated camp, and practice restrictions, but Simmons really seemed to fade down the stretch. He took fewer than 80% of the snaps in five of his last six games, after only coming below that number once all season previous; eight of his 11 QB hits came in the first six games of the season, even as pressure numbers stayed pretty consistent. He just seemed a little bit tired, and maybe a little bit frustrated with his role.
Conditioning is an underrated part of evaluating defensive tackles, and while I don’t think Simmons wasn’t fit—he’s clearly a great athlete—he just seemed to lose some of his fire across the season. There are a lot of explanations for that, and the easiest one is: “The Titans defense was bad, and it’s frustrating playing on a bad defense.” Hopefully, with better defensive talent in 2021, Simmons will be left in a role that maximizes him, which will spell more dominance for long stretches.
But all in all, few defensive tackles present the same physical challenge that Simmons does on a weekly basis. Simmons’ ascension beyond that of just “occasional homewrecker” is conditional on his continued growth in finishing his plays, but just a better defensive bullpen around him would do wonders in converting his disruption into actionable wins for the Tennessee defense. Lord knows they need it.