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Isaiah Simmons can do it all for the Cardinals’ defense, no matter where he lines up

Sometimes a jack of all trades is a master of none. That’s not Isaiah Simmons, though.

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Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons with his arms outstretched in front of a black and white background.
Isaiah Simmons did it all for the Clemson defense.

Isaiah Simmons didn’t need a good performance at the 2020 NFL Combine or at his pro day to prove he’s an elite athlete. He really didn’t even have to show up.

In a year when so many prospects are navigating the challenges of being unable to work out for teams, Simmons doesn’t have the same problem. His athleticism was perfectly obvious to anyone watching him on the field in the fall. Now the Cardinals get the luxury of finding a way to use it after picking him eighth overall in the 2020 NFL Draft.

In his final season at Clemson, Simmons earned unanimous All-American honors and the Butkus Award, recognizing the nation’s top collegiate linebacker. But calling him a linebacker is oversimplifying his skillset.

Simmons played 738 snaps for the Clemson defense in 2019, according to Pro Football Focus. Of those snaps, 106 were on the defensive line, 239 came as a box linebacker, 256 as a slot cornerback, seven as a wide cornerback, and 130 as a deep safety. Simmons quite literally did it all.

So where does he fit in the Arizona defense? Anywhere and everywhere.

Versatility in the college ranks doesn’t automatically mean a player will do the same in the NFL. Jabrill Peppers played everything from running back to linebacker during his time at Michigan, but — with the exception of some kick and punt returns — he’s been used exclusively at safety during his time with the Browns and Giants.

There’s also a danger that a jack of all trades could be a master of none. That’s not Simmons, though.

Simmons could be one of the NFL’s fastest linebackers

There are only two linebackers who have been officially credited with a 40-yard dash under 4.4 seconds at the combine: Simmons and Shaquem Griffin.

While Griffin is one of the NFL’s smaller linebackers at 6’0, 227 pounds, Simmons is closer to the league norm at 6’4, 238 pounds. Since 2011, the average linebacker at the NFL Combine has measured 6’2, 240 pounds.

Simmons is built like a linebacker — he’s just way, way faster than the rest of them. The average linebacker 40-yard dash time over the last decade is 4.71 seconds. Simmons torched that number by finishing in 4.39 seconds.

That run capped an otherworldly showing in Indianapolis for Simmons. His 39-inch vertical jump was third among linebackers and his 11-foot broad jump was second. Both of those leaps are above the 90th percentile for linebackers in the last decade.

Those numbers show that Simmons would be among the fastest and most explosive players to ever play linebacker at NFL, if that’s where he’s positioned. But they also show he has the requisite speed to be the same multifaceted player that he was at Clemson.

Simmons is fast enough to play defensive back too

Perhaps the closest comparison to Simmons’ combine performance came from Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James in 2018. After weighing in at 6’2, 215 pounds, James had a 4.47-second 40-yard dash, 40-inch vertical jump, and 11-foot broad jump.

James does a little bit of everything in the Chargers’ secondary. He earned All-Pro honors as a rookie after finishing with 3.5 sacks, three interceptions, 13 passes defended, and a team-leading 105 tackles. Now imagine him being even bigger and faster. That’s Simmons.

It almost feels hyperbolic to believe Simmons, a player listed at the combine as a linebacker, could play safety as well as James. And yet, the proof is on the tape. As a safety in the middle of the field (a particularly gigantic one, mind you), Simmons never looked out of place.

Simmons finished his final season with three interceptions (second-most on the team), 102 tackles (team high), and eight sacks (team high). Clemson had one of the top defenses in the nation, and no player was more important to that success than Simmons, who made plays at every level.

So where does Simmons play in an NFL defense?

The choice the Cardinals have is whether they want one of the NFL’s fastest ever linebackers or one of the NFL’s largest ever safeties. Neither decision would be wrong.

Linebacker seems to be the likelier option, though. Simmons will be close enough to the line of scrimmage to be disruptive in the backfield, like he did so many times in college.

But Simmons will also be tasked with shutting down tight ends and running backs in the pass game. That’s a job he knows he’s qualified for, uniquely so.

In Dan Kadar’s weekly mock drafts, Simmons bounced around the top 10 — even going as high as No. 3 overall to the Lions. Arizona can feel good about the value it got landing Simmons near the tail end of the top 10.

Arizona shouldn’t have much trouble finding a spot for Simmons. His game tape, athleticism, and stats all show he has what it takes to be a star anywhere on the field.