Niyo: Will playmaker Isaiah Simmons sway Lions with his ‘positionless’ ability?

John Niyo
The Detroit News
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Indianapolis — Isaiah Simmons has a tailor-made answer for NFL teams asking him what position he plays.

“Defense,” he says, rather matter-of-factly.

He’s not wrong, either. Simmons may be listed as a linebacker coming out of Clemson, but the 6-foot-3, 238-pound All-American flashed his versatility last season for the Tigers, playing 100-plus snaps at five different positions, with more than half of those coming at safety and cornerback, according to Pro Football Focus.

Clemson's Isaiah Simmons is listed as a linebacker but played 100-plus snaps at five different positions.

And after a jaw-dropping performance last week at the NFL Scouting Combine — Simmons’ blazing 40-yard dash (4.39 seconds) was just one of several explosive testing numbers — he’s the new poster child for a trend that’s reshaping the way teams build their rosters.

Next to “Tom Brady,” the most common buzzwords in Indianapolis were “positionless player,” and perhaps no player in the 2020 draft class offers a better show-and-tell presentation of just what exactly that looks like.

“I know years ago it wasn’t good to be a ‘positionless’ guy, but now it has become a benefit for me,” said Simmons, one of a handful of prime candidates to be the Lions’ first-round pick in April. “I think I can play in any scheme, just because of my versatility. I can fit in anywhere. Depending on what position they need me at, I feel I can play it.”

Utilityman mentality

That’s a valuable skill these days, in an offense-driven league that’s becoming more dynamic every year, with spread concepts filtering up from the college game and coaches trying to exploit size-speed mismatches across every inch of the field.

One needs only to watch the two teams that played in the Super Bowl last month to see that.

“If you know who George Kittle and Travis Kelce are, then that explains it all,” laughed Simmons, name-dropping the leading pass-catchers for both the 49ers and Chiefs — each a towering, athletic tight end who weighs more than 250 pounds but runs more like a wide receiver.

This trend runs deeper than that, though, as teams try to stay ahead of the game with personnel decisions, lest they find themselves playing catch-up on Sundays in the fall.

Lions general manager Bob Quinn

“When we evaluate players, we’re always trying to find out how much they can do,” Ravens GM Eric DeCosta said. “Can they play inside the box? Can they play on the edge? Can they drop? Can they rush the passer? Are they smart players? Can they play multiple positions? Can corners play safety? Can safeties play corner? All those types of things really do factor into the evaluation process. They help you build a roster, No. 1. But on game day they also help you create different looks that confuse the offense. And that’s a big part of what we do.”

Knowing that, it’s no surprise we’re hearing prospects parroting that same line of thinking. As LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson, a projected first-round edge rusher who also has shown ability to drop in coverage, put it, “When you hire someone, do you want to hire someone who speaks one language? Or do you want to hire someone that speaks three languages?”

Indeed, while every NFL team uses its own verbiage, the playbooks aren’t all that dissimilar in what has always been a copycat league. More than two-thirds of NFL games are now played with five or more defensive backs on the field, and while so-called “sub-packages” are effectively the base defense for virtually every team, that’s especially true for the Lions. In Matt Patricia’s first season in Detroit in 2018, his defense deployed nickel or dime personnel nearly 85 percent of the time, third-most in the NFL behind Arizona and — no surprise — New England, according to Football Outsiders.

That puts an even greater premium on players with position flexibility — think Tyrann Mathieu with the Chiefs or Derwin James with the Chargers — as new Washington coach Ron Rivera, who spent the last nine seasons in Carolina, explained last week in Indianapolis.

“If you don’t have to rotate a guy off the field — if he can stay on the field — you can change your defense, and your defensive looks, and your defensive philosophies,” Rivera said. “You start rotating guys in, and you’re tipping your hat a little bit: ‘Hey, here’s our nickel package.'”

Lions general manager Bob Quinn isn’t about to tip his hand when it comes to the Lions’ plans for the No. 3 pick. A trade down seems like the preferred option, with teams possibly interested in moving up to select Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah might be the Lions’ top target among a small group of elite defensive prospects. A trio of offensive tackles at the top of this draft also rates as one of the best in years.

Some speculate Ohio State defensive back Jeff Okudah might be the Lions' selection with the No. 3 pick.

Still, Simmons could be in the mix, even considering Patricia’s preference for bigger linebackers. Many teams view the Butkus Award winner a hybrid —more of a third safety than an off-ball linebacker — and he’d be an intriguing piece to pair in the middle of Detroit’s defense with Tracy Walker, a third-year safety the Lions view as a building block.

“That guy’s a playmaker," Quinn said of Simmons. "He can do a variety of things at a very, very high level."

He has for some time now, too. Quinn, like most GMs, took note of Simmons as a redshirt sophomore in 2018 when he was the leading tackler on Clemson’s national title team.

Does it all

"He’s great," Quinn said. "He can cover tight ends, he can play the run, he can play sideline to sideline. He’s a very good blitzer. He’s not a big-body inside linebacker … but his athleticism, his range, his ability just to make plays in both the run and pass game was really intriguing."

Adds Raiders GM Mike Mayock. “Really, I think, the only limitations on him are the ones a defensive coordinator puts on him.”

Mayock points to his own division, the AFC West, as a minefield of potential mismatches at the tight end position — facing the likes of Kelce, Hunter Henry (Chargers) and Noah Fant (Broncos)  — and wonders aloud, “They’re big guys who run fast: ‘Who do we have?’”

Well, ideally, you’ve got a big guy who can run fast on defense, which is probably why the NFL Network cameras caught Mayock and Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther laughing in their suite at Lucas Oil Stadium as Simmons’ sub-4.4 time was posted for the 40. (Only four wide receivers and two defensive backs ran faster at this year’s combine.)

But then what? Quinn admits it’s probably “a little bit harder” to evaluate a player like Simmons, and his peers tend to agree.

 “Like any player, you have to have a plan for him,” Arizona Cardinals GM Steve Keim said of Simmons. “Where are you going to play him? How is he going to align for you?”

And then how quickly can that jack-of-all-trades master what he’s being asked to do? Simmons calls himself “a Swiss Army knife,” but learning one position is difficult enough for an NFL rookie. Figuring out two or three well enough to be a reliable weapon is a much bigger ask.

But the bottom line is this: NFL teams are asking different questions now, mostly because they’re searching for different answers.

“There are certain traits you’re looking for, but you’re just looking for position-less players,” said Matt Rhule, who’s making the leap from college to the pros as Rivera’s successor in Carolina. “The offenses in the league are changing, so the defenses have to be able to do a lot of things.”

And for the players that can, too, they might be in the best position of all.

jniyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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