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NFL draft: Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons can tackle any position on defense

Clemson's Isaiah Simmons celebrates a defensive stop against LSU Tigers in the college football national title game in January.
(Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)

The Times examines the top prospects ahead of the NFL draft, to be held April 23-25.

Isaiah Simmons offered one word when asked what position he plays.

“Defense,” Simmons said at the recent NFL combine.

He wasn’t being flip. A positionless wonder out of Clemson, Simmons has played edge rusher, linebacker, cornerback and safety.

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Truth be told, his talents can’t even be confined to defense. Coming out of high school, he was a star receiver. He’s played as many as five positions in a single game.

Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables saved Simmons untold hours by holding meetings involving linebackers and defensive backs in the same room, sparing his star pupil from pinballing around the football offices.

All that versatility should lend itself perfectly to Simmons’ singular mission once he reaches the NFL: covering as much turf as possible while embracing the realities of modern football.

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“The game’s no longer a 250-pound linebacker,” said Simmons, who was measured at 6 feet 4 and 238 pounds. “It’s more guys that are able to run side to side and are able to cover. It’s just a necessity now with the tight ends and running backs.”

The drama involving Simmons on draft day will be short-lived because he’s expected to be selected among the first handful of picks. He’s the consensus top linebacker in the draft and a player who ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. labeled as the most ready to immediately contribute to his new team.

Some have compared him to Derwin James, the Chargers’ 6-2, 215-pound All-Pro safety, while noting that Simmons is faster, taller and significantly brawnier.

Simmons ran the 40-yard dash in a cheetahlike 4.39 seconds at the combine, where he also bench-pressed 225 pounds 20 times. Every number involving Simmons, it seems, is eye-popping.

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After returning to Clemson for his senior season to boost his draft stock, Simmons led the Tigers with 107 tackles, 16 tackles for lost yardage and eight sacks. Then there was that pivotal interception against Ohio State in a College Football Playoff semifinal victory.

Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah could be one of those rare cornerbacks to be selected at the top of the NFL draft.

Simmons attempts to blend the talents of NFL players he watches on film. He favors Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller for pass rush, Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey for coverage technique and Kansas City Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu for an ability to roam.

“I take bits and pieces from all of them,” Simmons said, “and kind of throw them into my game.”

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A lifelong Kansas City fan who hails from Olathe, Kan., Simmons acknowledged the allure of playing for the hometown Chiefs, who would have to move up significantly to snag him. They hold the final pick of the first round.

It would be really cool, he said, but he’ll be ready to play anywhere, in any scheme, for any team.

Maybe more so than anyone else.


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