Isaiah Simmons was selected by the Arizona Cardinals eighth overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. The terms "unique" and "unicorn" get thrown around too much these days. But Isaiah Simmons was truly that type of prospect coming out of Clemson. At 6’4”, 230 pounds, Simmons played this hybrid slot defender/dime linebacker/safety role for the Tigers, which they tagged as “STAR”.
He often looked like the fastest player on the field against the most talented competition in the country. He backed up that freakish athleticism at the combine with a 4.39 in the 40 foot dash, a 11-foot broad jump and a 39-inch vert. However, he was projected to play on the second level primarily as a pro.
Due to him needing time to get acclimated, he only played 34% of defensive snaps as a rookie. But that number shot all the way up to 92% in his encore season. Now in year three of defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s system, watch him truly take off.
Here are three reasons why Isaiah Simmons will break out in 2022:
#1- Isaiah Simmons can build on his experience in the NFL
Looking at the total statistics for Simmons in his sophomore NFL campaign, you can say he has already taken a major step. 105 total tackles, with four for loss (same as in 2020), consecutive years with one interception and seven more PBUs last season. He also showed a knack for punching the ball out, racking up four forced fumbles.
In terms of coverage numbers, so far Simmons has surrendered a completion percentage of 67.7 for 6.4 yards per target and five touchdowns. Those aren’t significantly better than his running mate on the second level last season. However, his coverage duties have been manifold and coverage numbers are often deceptive.
A defender is charged with a completion solely for being the next-closest player, even when it might have been a teammate’s fault. PFF captured his value in that regard more comprehensively, stating that he allowed less than one yard per coverage snap last season.
So far in his career, he’s racked up 11 pressures on 103 blitzes. He can also stay in the middle of the field and use that incredible closing burst to hunt down scrambling quarterbacks as a spy. With Trey Lance now in that division, expect the versatile linebacker to be deployed more in that capacity. He shut down a few of his runs in their week five meeting when Lance made his first career start.
#2- He has incredible ability
The speed at which Simmons moves for a guy his size is just absurd. You constantly see him come onto the screen away from the action, even on the end-zone view, as you’re watching tape. He has the explosiveness to avoid pin-down blocks and force the ball back inside on perimeter-oriented run concepts. He’s a menace to block for any player outside the box when the Cardinals use him as a big nickel.
It was surprising to see how much they lined him up on the outside edge of tight-ends. If that guy blocked down away from him, Simmons didn’t shy away from meeting pulling guards in the backfield to create issues in the backfield. Leaving him unblocked on the backside of bootlegs, he easily snuffs out and shuts down easy YAC threats in the flats.
What makes this kid so unique is the value he adds as a coverage defender. Whether it’s matching different body types in the slot or the range he presents in the zone. Simmons can carry routes down the seams/hashes and then spot up in those hook areas. Kind of like an overhang defender, but he also takes away lay-ups based on spacing underneath.
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He has the loose hips to mirror twitchy receivers at the break point even when he momentarily loses contact. You see him shut down tight-ends one-on-one routinely, even when they’re isolated on the backside with a lot of space to work. Going through his games, you really started seeing his understanding for how to counter routes based on his leverage and offensive alignments.
What takes him over the top is what he can bring in passing situations. Coming out of Clemson, Simmons has already said that he’d rather blitz than cover on third downs. He can follow somebody into the slot and then rush from there.
Arizona’s defensive coordinator Vance Joseph loves to run those double A-gap mugs on third downs. In that situation, Simmons can win straight up with his quickness, but also get home on delayed games. Most importantly, he has a crazy ability to cover ground when they drop him out, to carry guys down the seams and pick up crossers that he sees.
You see him start in the opposite A-gap and get back underneath the speedy slot receiver pushing down the seams. His most memorable play like that came in their week seven matchup of 2020, in overtime against the Seattle Seahawks. They put Tyler Lockett in the number-three spot in trips and thought they had an easy third-down conversion. But Simmons raced underneath the speedy receiver and ended the game with an interception.
#3- The Cardinals will develop his weaknesses
Of course, Simmons still isn’t a perfect player. He could still improve by playing half the man when he takes on blocks in space and in the box. By being able to deconstruct blocks in a traditional sense. At this point, he plays the run more like a safety when lined up between the tackles. His eyes wander to the closest receiver for a possible play-action call, rather than shooting through the hole a lot of times, which may in part be due to coaching.
Something he’s carried over from college is the fact that he tends to overrun plays as he’s chasing guys out to the sidelines. Then they can cut underneath him. That’s something he should be able to easily fix theoretically, with vigorous coaching to use the white line as a 12th defender. It’s not been detrimental by any means, with an okay missed tackle rate of 9.1% so far in his career.
We need to keep in mind that this was only just his second season playing a true linebacker role. While his game-changing athleticism is a gift, with how demanding that position is in the NFL, it takes a while to mentally digest the game. He should soon be able to play as fast as he can run.
We some similar issues from last year’s first-rounder Zaven Collins. At Tulsa, Collins was reading plays in a very different fashion himself. In what’s known as an “Okie front”, with a nose-tackle and two 4i D-ends, where he’s go from the A-gaps to chasing plays to the edges.
Vance Joseph could pinch his defensive line a lot more to force the ball out wide, thanks to the speed they’ll have there at the second level. Particularly with Byron Murphy in the slot and Budda Baker rotating down or just chasing up the alley. While the Cardinals may take a step backwards as a team, Simmons should once again hit triple-digit tackles. Expect a higher percentage of those to be for negative yardage, along with like three interceptions, five sacks and a few more fumbles forced.