Every year there is at least one move in the offseason where a veteran player gets traded for pennies on the dollar that makes me scratch my head. I understand that contract windows, age, surrounding roster, and other aspects of timing go into these decisions beyond simply the talent of an individual player at that time, but some moves still make me wonder what I’m missing when evaluating them.
There were a couple this past offseason, but one of the big ones was when the Tennessee Titans traded away multi-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Jurrell Casey for a seventh-round pick.
A seventh-round pick? For a player who has made the Pro Bowl more times than not in his career? Who is currently on a five-year streak of Pro Bowl-caliber play? For a guy who just hit age 30 last December? Whose deal was just starting to get pretty team flexible? Who trailed only Harold Landry in sacks (5.0) and snaps (708) as a “defensive lineman”?
How does this add up? Why would the Titans make such a move, especially knowing that they want to make a similar deep playoff run in 2020 and are going to need all the help they can get?
The answer is second-year defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons.
During his final season at Mississippi State, Pro Football focus gave Simmons a grade of 92.8. He finished his Bulldog career with back-to-back double-digit tackles for loss totals in 2017 and 2018, including a career-high 18.0 in his final season.
Simmons was regarded as one of the top prospects in the class. Before the draft, this is what TDN’s own Joe Marino had to say about Simmons:
“From a talent perspective, Simmons belongs among the top-10 selections,” Marino said. “He blends power, size, length, flexibility, hand technique, and explosiveness to make him a highly disruptive interior presence. He does have some inconsistencies with control, processing, and his footwork but his ceiling as a wrecking ball style player is exciting.”
But the reason why Simmons wasn’t selected in the top 10, as Marino suggested he should be, is because of an unfortunate ACL tear during the pre-draft process. Knowing Simmons likely wouldn’t be able to give a team a full 16 games in 2019, the top-10 talent was selected No. 19 overall.
Because of his injury, Simmons did not start the season. In fact, he didn’t get his first taste of NFL action until Week 7 in October—but even that was a feat of great rehab work knowing it was just nine months from injury to playtime. Simmons went on to play in nine games with seven starts. As he continued to get more and more comfortable playing after his injury and playing with a knee brace, Simmons went on to record 32 tackles, four tackles for loss, and two sacks.
One year in and not only does it appear that the Titans think Simmons was worth that pick, but that he was worth centering the defensive line around moving forward.
PFF gave Simmons a grade of 70.4 in his rookie season. Compare that to Casey’s 74.2 and it’s not too far off. Even as a 22-year-old rookie Simmons showed the traits teams love to see from interior players as building blocks for a defensive front.
Let’s start with a little intro into how good Simmons is, starting with his explosiveness—a trait that will show up constantly throughout this film review.
Simmons (No. 98) was lined up at 1-tech in the A-gap right over the right shoulder of the center. At 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds, Simmons’ frame alone makes that a tough ask for interior offensive linemen due to how much space he takes up in the middle. But what catches interior offensive linemen off guard (especially in the clip above, which was Simmons’ first game of the season), is how explosive he is for a player that size.
That center had no idea Simmons was going to come at him with that kind of bull rush, and it allowed Simmons to play the role of a one-man wrecking crew. To see that kind of explosiveness-to-power in his first game back was very encouraging for Simmons to return to the dominant form we saw from him in 2018 at MSU.
If Simmons’ strength isn’t the first attribute you mention when praising his skill set, it has to at least be second.
This man is as strong as an ox. In the play above, during the Titans’ Wild Card matchup against the New England Patriots, Simmons was lined up at a 4i-technique in the B-gap between the guard and tackle right in front of the right tackle’s left shoulder as the left defensive end in the Titans’ 3-4 front.
Seeing how many bodies the Patriots had on their line in a 3rd-and-three situation, Simmons knew this play was about taking up space and anchoring as best he could. At the snap, Simmons engaged with the right tackle and got a little bit of a double team, but when the double broke off, the man left to block Simmons one-on-one had no chance. That allowed him to not yield a yard and get into the running lane.
Defense still starts with stopping the run; stopping the run still starts up front.
In this next play, Simmons was lined up in the same exact spot as a 4i right over the inside shoulder of the offensive tackle, but he was aligned on the other side as the right defensive end in the 3-4 formation.
Simmons presents such a tough matchup for offensive linemen because if you don’t give him added attention, he’ll likely beat a one-on-one (he’s too powerful), and if you don’t even fully get him with at least one, well, then the guy holding the ball in the backfield isn’t going to have very much fun on that play.
The Raiders were attempting to run the ball from a zone blocking concept. In doing so, the entire offensive line took their first step to the left. But the combination of Simmons’ alignment, his first-step explosiveness, and his strength when contacted was all too much on that play. This allowed him to simultaneously throw off the offensive tackle, who he first engaged with, yet he still moved well enough to stay out of the reach of the guards helping block in that direction. That allowed Simmons to split between the guard and the tackle when the ball carrier got closer.
He was just too much to handle.
Being 6-foot-4 doesn’t just help in the amount of space you can take up along the defensive line, it also helps when keeping offensive linemen at bay. Why does length matter in the trenches? Why do we always hear people make a big deal of offensive and defensive linemen arm measurements at the NFL Scouting Combine? Because of plays like the one above.
Think about it practically. You can only get true power (from your lower body all the way through your upper body) into your opponent if you get your hands and elbows in the right place with the right body leverage underneath. If someone has longer arms than you, and they can get their hands into your chest from a distance where your arm length can’t reach their chest, you lose; they will be able to get all their power into you while you just try to grasp at any part of their jersey/pads while you get controlled.
There are plenty of plays where Simmons achieves a length—and therefore a strength—advantage on his opponent. But I chose the clip above because the offensive lineman he bested on that play was 6-foot-7, 350-pound Baltimore Ravens tackle Orlando Brown.
Brown has 35-inch arms and an 85-inch wingspan. That wingspan, along with Brown’s height and weight, are all in the 90th percentile for offensive tackles. This basically says that if you can out-reach this man, you can out-reach anyone.
That’s the kind of advantage we’re talking about here when we reference what an asset Simmons’ arm length with his frame is.
Speaking of hands, if you don’t leave your weak hand placement at home, just don’t show up to the stadium, because Simmons is going to expose you.
For being a player of his size, Simmons has heavy hands and a smooth swim move to get off blocks. He likes to hit that inside counter on offensive linemen who aren’t expecting him to have that kind of elusiveness.
Watch the second half of the clip from the end zone angle. In it, you’ll see some of Simmons’ versatility along the Titans’ front. So far we’ve seen Simmons as a 1-tech and a 4i inside the helmet offensive tackles, but on this play he was lined up all the way on the outside shoulder of the right tackle as a 5-tech in the C-gap.
At the snap, Simmons, who had a one-on-one with the right tackle, achieved that control with his length right off the snap and was able to get up and under the tackle’s left arm to throw him to the side and into the B-gap, which had no help. The smoothness of that move stems from Simmons putting his hands in the right place with both speed and power.
For this next play above, Simmons was kicked inside a bit to a 3-tech spot right in front of the outside shoulder of the right guard to occupy the B-gap. If you’ll watch the clip a few times back, you’ll see that the offensive guard did not have his hands up to a spot that would have made it easy for him to engage. Instead, his hands were down and Simmons took advantage.
Hand placement and speed are something pass rushers consistently work on throughout their career. But you can see that Simmons notices when he has the hands advantage. Now it’s just about hitting different moves, such as a push-pull or a club rip, at an even higher level for even more success.
Big Plays In Big Moments
The last part of Simmons’ season I wanted to highlight was how he showed up in some big moments in the playoffs, even though he never played more than 50 percent of the defensive snaps in any postseason game.
In the first clip above, the Patriots were on the goal line on 2nd-and-2 up three (10-7) with less than five minutes to go in the half. We’ve seen this script before. Patriots score here, go up 10, and advance to the next round of the playoffs.
But not this game, and it really started to turn in the Titans’ favor with this stand.
Simmons (No. 98) was lined up as the right defensive tackle right in the middle of the A-gap between the center and the guard. Simmons got hit with a cut block by the center, but his sheer size still did not allow for the running back to shoot up the A-gap. That (among other things) led to linebacker Rashaan Evans making the stop.
On the very next play, on 3rd-and-1, Simmons and Evans showed up again.
The Pats didn’t cut Simmons. Instead, they gave their center the responsibility of blocking Simmons on his own.
That didn’t work.
Simmons put it all together on that play; the frame, the first-step explosiveness, the power (with just one arm), and that made a way for Evans to once again get to the ball carrier before he could score.
When you look at his stat sheet, Simmons’ first season wasn’t much to write home about. But knowing that half the regular season he was recovering from a torn ACL, seeing how he was able to make an impact from the jump, and how he came up big when needed during the playoffs, the moves the Titans made to start building their line around him makes a lot more sense.