INDIANAPOLIS — Ten years ago, a lot of NFL defensive coordinators would have been deathly afraid of drafting a player such as Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons, because, well, they wouldn’t have known what to do with him.
Is he a safety? Is he a linebacker? Is he a slot corner? Is he an edge rusher? What is he?
The idea of a versatile, positionless player whom you can line up just about anywhere and do just about anything with was foreign to most of the league’s rigid-thinking coaches.
They preferred to have 11 players with clearly defined roles. There were a few notable exceptions, of course, including the Eagles’ Hall of Fame safety, Brian Dawkins, who was the versatile leader of those great Jim Johnson defenses of the early 2000s.
In the last few years, coaches finally have shed their rigid views and have embraced the idea of positionless football.
“I think the league’s going that way on both sides of the line of scrimmage,’’ Raiders general manager Mike Mayock said. “You look at guys on offense that can play in the slot, play at running back, be H-backs. There’s not really a label for them.
“They’re just either dynamic players or they’re not. And then you start trying to match up with those guys on defense. You look at tight ends like [Travis] Kelce and [George] Kittle and [Zach] Ertz. Big guys who run fast.
“How do you match up against them? With dynamic players like Isaiah Simmons, that’s how. He’s played on the back end. He’s played at linebacker. He’s come off the edge. Really, I think the only limitations on him are the ones a defensive coordinator puts on him.’’
The 6-foot-4, 238-pound Simmons, who was listed as a linebacker/safety at Clemson, will be a top-10 pick in next month’s draft and could even go in the top five. NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah has him rated as the sixth-best prospect in the draft, behind Ohio State edge rusher Chase Young, Auburn interior defensive lineman Derrick Brown, LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah and Louisville offensive tackle Mekhi Becton, in that order.
“When you have offenses trying to manipulate personnel and get certain [defensive personnel] groups on the field, you’d better have versatile players that do multiple things,’’ Jeremiah said.
“It doesn’t matter what position you list Simmons at. Whoever drafts him is going to be able to plug him into the defensive scheme each week and deploy him in different ways depending on what the strength of the opponent is.
“That’s why he has so much value. Putting guys in little position boxes, that’s going to go away eventually. You’re just going to see coaches putting athletes on the field and deploying them in different ways on a week-to-week basis. When you’re playing against quarterbacks like Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson, you’d better get faster and more athletic. Especially at the second and third levels.’’
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables was masterful in his use of Simmons. Much like Johnson with Dawkins, he lined up Simmons all over the field, which allowed the Tigers to disguise their blitzes and coverages. Venables had him cover slot receivers, running backs, and tight ends. He put him on the edge and had him rush the passer.
"He moved me all around,'' Simmons said earlier this week at the NFL scouting combine, where he and more than 330 other top draft prospects are working out for the league’s 32 teams. "Which allowed me to really show what I could do. I wasn’t tied down to one position. Coach Venables used me in a special way that most people aren’t able to be used.''
Last season, Simmons had eight sacks, three interceptions, two forced fumbles, 16 ½ tackles for losses, nine pass breakups and a team-high 104 total tackles.
"I like an interception as much as I like a sack,'' Simmons said.
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who loves players who can play more than one position, would kill to get his hands on Simmons.
“A few years ago, it wasn’t good to be a positionless guy,’’ Simmons noted. “But it’s been good for me. I played linebacker. I played safety. I blitzed. I did everything. It’s going to help me out.
“I think I can play in any scheme just because of my versatility. I can fit in anywhere depending on what position the team that drafts me needs me at. Mentally, I don’t think there’s anything I can’t do. I mean, I’ve played every position except for nose [tackle] and three-technique.’’
The emergence of big, fast tight ends such as Kelce, Kittle, Ertz, and Dallas Goedert and the plethora of elusive pass-catching running backs in the league has increased the need to have every-down players who can cover those guys, regardless of the personnel grouping.
“The game is evolving,’’ Simmons said. “The name of the game now is stopping tight ends. Something has to be done to stop people like Travis Kelce and George Kittle. Between [covering] guys like that and the running backs, the game no longer is about 250-pound linebackers. It’s more about guys that can run side to side and can cover. It’s such a necessity now with those tight ends and running backs.’’
Having a player such as Simmons allows a defense to disguise its coverages, much like the Eagles often have done with versatile safety/corners such as Malcolm Jenkins and Avonte Maddox.
Schwartz blitzed his safeties 106 times last season, including 73 times by Jenkins. That was the most in Schwartz’s four seasons running the Eagles’ defense.
“There’s only five eligible [receivers],’’ 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said earlier this week. “You’re trying to find the best mismatch with those five. Often, it’s a running back vs. a linebacker or a tight end vs. a linebacker or safety.
“That’s why you mix in personnel groups with fullbacks and 11-personnel [three wide receivers]. That’s why the defense has to go to nickel or dime to cover the people you have out there. But that puts them at a disadvantage in stopping the run.
“When you have bigger guys in there like [Simmons] who can cover running backs, who can cover tight ends, who can cover slot receivers and make tackles against the run, it makes it a lot harder for the offense to figure out what coverage you’re getting.’’
Simmons said he models different parts of his game after different players. "It would be Von Miller for pass rushing, Jalen Ramsey for man[-to-man] techniques and Tyrann Mathieu because he plays all over like me,'' he said.