It's April 23. The first round of the NFL draft. A draft so unique and virtual that it's bound to go off script. Of course it will. It's 2020. General manager Dave Gettleman is sitting at his house in front of a computer screen, bouncing around group chats, ready to make the New York Giants' selection.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks briskly to the makeshift podium in the basement of his mansion with a smirk on his face to make this announcement.
"With the fourth pick in the 2020 NFL draft, the New York Giants select: Isaiah Simmons, defensive weapon, Clemson."
The Giants are especially high on Simmons' playmaking ability, and even if he doesn't address one of their biggest needs, the scenario is not implausible. Defensive weapon, while not an official position, accurately describes what NFL insiders are thinking of Simmons. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay lists Simmons as an outside linebacker in his position rankings, but depending on whom you're talking to and the day, Simmons is also viewed as an inside linebacker, safety, nickelback or rover.
"He fits [at] inside [linebacker] or outside [linebacker]. Or safety," one coach said. "The only reason I say all that is because the dude can just run. Having guys that can flat-out run, there is something to that, especially in the middle of the defense."
It's hard to put this kind of player in a box, because Simmons played all over the field at Clemson. Ask the All-American his position and he will simply say "defense." Two coaches and a coordinator surveyed by ESPN viewed him primarily as a weakside linebacker in their defense. An executive thought he might be a strongside linebacker.
Most thought Simmons would be best if allowed to roam freely on the outside and make plays. That would be a fit for any team from the Detroit Lions, who have the No. 3 overall pick, to the Jacksonville Jaguars at No. 9. It would be a surprise if he made it that far, according to the coordinator.
One coach added that Simmons also fit as a nickel cornerback or rover/safety on passing downs, and ESPN analyst Matt Bowen, a former NFL safety, views him as a safety in base defenses. It shows the varied opinions.
"He can cut crossers, spin down as a 'robber' and roam the perimeter to make plays in space," Bowen explained.
Bowen also noted that Simmons' value is boosted by his ability to be a movable chess piece in sub-package personnel. Coordinators could use him in nickel-and-dime sets as a hybrid linebacker/safety.
The comparisons from coaches and executives ranged from former Pittsurgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier to Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Tyrann Mathieu to Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James to Lions linebacker Jamie Collins. Simmons sees himself as a combination of Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller for his pass-rush ability, Los Angeles Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey for his coverage and Mathieu for his versatility.
The lofty comparisons follow Simmons' performance at the NFL combine in February, when he displayed an absurd amount of athleticism. He's 6-foot-4, 238 pounds and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds. It's the second-fastest time for a linebacker at the combine since 2006. He also jumped 39 inches, with an 11-foot broad jump. These are measurables that put linebackers and safeties to shame, and would impress most cornerbacks.
A fit for Big Blue?
What should the Giants do with the 4th pick?
Todd McShay explains why the Giants can either potentially take LB Isaiah Simmons or move back in the draft to try and snag an offensive tackle.
It would be a shock if Goodell used the label "defensive weapon" when introducing Simmons, especially considering the Jaguars were told in 2013 to stop using the "offensive weapon" designation for college QB Denard Robinson, because the league wanted something more official.
It would not be a shock if Simmons is drafted by the Giants.
Put aside for a second that Big Blue hasn't selected a linebacker in the first round since Michigan State's Carl Banks in 1984. There is a strong chance Simmons is the best defensive player on the board when the Giants pick at No. 4. Several coaches thought he was the second-best defensive player in the draft behind Ohio State pass-rusher Chase Young. And boy do the Giants desperately need defensive playmakers, especially at linebacker, where it seems they haven't had someone who can cover tight ends in years.
"They need such drastic changes at that position," one coach said. "You have to stop talking about it and you have to do it. It's not the eight-year vet who is 260 pounds ... it's the 230-something guy that can run. That's the game."
There are some in the Giants organization who drool over Simmons' athleticism. They also look at his versatility as a positive, in part because the defense under coordinator Patrick Graham is expected to be flexible and multiple. The Giants will move people around, and there is no better chess piece in this draft for that philosophy than Simmons, who, two of the coaches noted, is special because he can cover tight ends.
Simmons can also be part of the pass-rush solution for the Giants or any team that takes him. He had eight sacks on 71 pass-rush attempts as a movable piece in coordinator Brent Venables' defense at Clemson last season. His 26 pressures produced a success rate of 36.6%. That's an eye-opening number considering no NFL player topped 23.1%.
"With this guy, you're not drafting the linebacker. You're drafting the athlete," the executive said. "And then what you want to do with him is put him in a position, especially early in his career, where it's as simple as it can possibly be so you can use the athlete. If you paralyze him with X's and O's and key and diagnose and read and react, you're taking away what he does best, which is the athleticism."
The comparison the executive made was to Collins, who is now in Detroit after enjoying his best success in New England. Coach Bill Belichick moved him around and kept it simple. He either put Collins in man coverage or blitzed him. He didn't try to shoehorn him into the expectations of a "normal" linebacker. It's why, the executive noted, Collins' only success came with the Patriots (where Giants coach Joe Judge and Lions coach Matt Patricia were watching).
Worth a top-five pick?
The only question for teams is whether a defensive weapon is worth a top-five pick. There seems to be little doubt Simmons is a playmaker who can fit any defense. Both Mel Kiper Jr. and McShay have him ranked as a top-five player. ESPN analyst Louis Riddick believes it would be a massive blunder if Simmons made it past the Giants at No. 4.
But there is the thinking that Simmons doesn't play a premium position, whether he's considered a linebacker, safety or whatever. He's not a quarterback, offensive tackle, natural edge rusher, do-everything defensive tackle or even a cornerback.
For the Giants, selecting Simmons would mark the second time in three years they went with a non-premium position at the top of the draft. They would then be looking back at the past three drafts -- all with top-six picks -- with a quarterback, running back and linebacker/safety on the roster, but gaping holes at two of the most important positions -- offensive tackle and edge rusher.
But this, again, might be undervaluing the defensive weapon. As Judge made clear at the combine -- even before Simmons dropped jaws -- the only priority is to bring in good football players who meet the values and principles of the organization.
Simmons, regardless of position, qualifies.