When he arrived, Venables shed his reservations. The kid he had come to see actually was bigger than his coach had let on, ran fast enough to play wide receiver and played with an aggression he rarely saw in safeties. Venables decided he was not leaving without a commitment from Isaiah Simmons.
“I just jumped all over him like a spider monkey, man,” Venables said.
Venables, then, already has accomplished what NFL teams are trying to do. Everyone is looking for a player like Isaiah Simmons.
The NFL is now taking its turn being infatuated with Simmons, a do-everything defensive skeleton key certain to be chosen in the first 10 picks of the draft next Thursday — and a player who exemplifies what defensive coaches are seeking to stop today’s pyrotechnic offenses.
NFL defenses have tried — and mostly failed — in recent seasons to stop spread offenses featuring dual-threat quarterbacks, field-stretching wide receivers and matchup-nightmare tight ends. Those offenses blur positions, with tight ends who line up everywhere, running backs who split out wide as pass catchers and wide receivers who motion into the backfield and take handoffs. NBA innovators popularized the notion of positionless basketball, and the concept has bled into the NFL.
As the sport drifts toward positionless offensive players, the solution to stopping them may be positionless defenders — players such as Simmons. It’s not an entirely novel concept. The New England Patriots for two decades have prioritized versatile defenders who allow for Bill Belichick’s adaptive game-planning. Coaches and general managers increasingly cite the benefits of defenders who can toggle between roles. Los Angeles Chargers hybrid Derwin James is one of the league’s best young defensive players.
Simmons, though, could represent an evolutionary step in the trend. Sometimes people ask him what position he plays. “Defense,” Simmons will reply. It could become a new mantra.
“More and more defenses around the league are saying, ‘Who are the guys you don’t necessarily have to put a label on that are dynamic football players?’ ” Las Vegas Raiders General Manager Mike Mayock said at the NFL combine. “Isaiah Simmons has played on the back end. He’s played at linebacker. He’s come off the edge. And really I think the only limitations on him are the ones a defensive coordinator puts on him.”
Simmons played the “Cheetah” position at Clemson, which meant he played everywhere and did everything. Clemson labeled him a linebacker, which is like calling an iPhone an alarm clock. Simmons lined up at safety, stacked behind defensive tackles, in the slot and on the line. He covered wide receivers, spied running quarterbacks, played the run, rushed the passer off the edge and confused play callers.
“I know years ago it wasn’t good to be a positionless guy,” Simmons said at the combine. “But now it’s become a benefit for me just because of all the versatility I’ll be able to do — play linebacker, play safety, whatever it is. I feel like it just helps me out.”
Simmons compared himself to Denver Broncos edge rusher Von Miller, Kansas City Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu and Los Angeles Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey, which seems utterly ridiculous if you haven’t watched him up close. But Venables has for four years. In practice, Simmons spent the majority of his individual position periods on one-on-one pass coverage because it’s the hardest part of the game for him and “he loves a challenge,” Venables said. But Simmons would sometimes join pass rush drills with defensive ends, and he would turn offensive linemen into wreckage. Last season, he had eight sacks, 16 tackles for loss and three interceptions.
“Your hands aren’t tied” as a defensive coordinator, Venables said. “ ‘We can’t do this with him on the field.’ Yes, you can. You can do a lot of things with him and then complement your packages accordingly.”
For years, college players with Simmons’s résumé were dismissed as “tweeners,” lacking ideal size for linebacker and not fast enough for the secondary. NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah remembers asking evaluators whether they thought James, listed as a safety at Florida State, would be a linebacker or a safety in the NFL. The debate, along with injury questions, caused James to fall to the Chargers with the draft’s 17th pick in 2018. He was a first-team all-pro as a rookie. Teams will not make the same mistake with Simmons.
“I’ve talked to a number of defensive coordinators in the offseason and posed this question to them: Are we going to start heading toward a positionless game?” Jeremiah said during a recent conference call with reporters. “When you have offenses trying to manipulate personnel and get certain groups on the field, you better have more versatile players that can do more versatile things.
“With a guy like Isaiah Simmons, whether you want to list him as a linebacker or a safety, I just know you plug him into that defensive scheme, and week by week you can deploy him depending on what the strength of your opponent is. That’s why he adds so much value. Putting these guys in little position boxes, that’s going to go away eventually. You’re just going to be getting your athletes on the field and deploying them in different ways on a week-by-week basis.”
As defenses get smaller to counter pass-heavy offenses and dual-threat quarterbacks, offenses respond by using exotic personnel groups and formations to create mismatches. Players such as Simmons are a defensive trump card. He can stay on the field regardless of what players the opponent lines up or how it deploys them.
Offenses use different personnel and formations to create confusion and force defenses to show their intentions. Simmons allows defensive coordinators to turn the tables: An offense must determine how to account for him. In protection schemes, should the offensive line count him as a rusher? Does the quarterback need to prepare for him to drop into coverage, or should he expect a blitz? In run-blocking schemes, do blockers count him as a linebacker or safety?
“The very first thing an offensive coach is going to tell you is, ‘What is he?’ ” Venables said. “They want to identify him from a protection standpoint and a targeting standpoint in the run game. They want to identify him by jersey number. If now all of a sudden you’re using him at multiple positions from one personnel package or one situation to the next, that causes offenses a lot of problems from an ID standpoint.”
At the combine, Simmons said he viewed his NFL mission as “Stop the George Kittles and the Travis Kelces out there.” Versatile, athletic tight ends such as San Francisco’s Kittle and Kansas City’s Kelce might be the most effective offensive weapons in today’s game. Their blocking ability forces defenses to play linebackers to stop the run, but then they can torch those linebackers in the passing game. Simmons’s speed and length — which Venables said allow him to make up for a lack of polished cover skills even when lined up opposite slot receivers — make him an antidote.
“I saw the Super Bowl. There were just ‘backers getting worn out with a lot of quick, underneath passing game,” Venables said. “That guy ain’t getting worn out, I can promise you.”
Versatile defenders matter so much because they counter attempts to manipulate the defense. While with the Carolina Panthers, new Washington Redskins coach Ron Rivera drafted Shaq Thompson, a hybrid between a safety and a linebacker. If a tight end split out, Thompson could cover him. If the tight end stayed in to block, Thompson could defend the run.
“That’s an invaluable player,” Rivera said. “That’s the kind of player that you look for in the draft, the guy that has position flexibility.”
For most players, playing several positions means they can do a lot poorly. Simmons has proved he can bounce around and, in Venables’s estimation, be the best defensive player on a national champion and a national runner-up in consecutive years.
“Who can move around like that and still be that productive?” Venables said. “For a lot of guys, that’s going to neutralize them because it’s like anything — as you get comfortable with one thing, you get more aggressive, you get more sure of yourself, you play with more confidence. But he played with all those intangibles, all the while in many games playing three or four spots.”
There, then, is the problem with casting Simmons as the future of defense as opposed to simply a great defensive weapon. It is tempting to call Simmons a prototype, but an outlier is probably more accurate. How many 6-foot-4, 238-pound Butkus Award winners who won two Kansas high school state long jump championships are there? And of those, how many have won team awards for best scout-team player or have been called a “rock star off the field,” as Venables refers to Simmons?
Years later, Venables knows how fortunate he was to discover one — and how lucky some NFL team is about to get.
“Finding those guys is really hard,” he said. “And when you get them, man, take full advantage of them.”
Les Carpenter contributed to this report.