How the New York Giants should deploy the versatile Isaiah Simmons

2MA1WB4 Arizona Cardinals linebacker Isaiah Simmons (9) in action during the second half of an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022 in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)

• Isaiah Simmons faced too high of expectations in Arizona: The Cardinals likely felt pressured to make Simmons — a Swiss Army Knife and a top-10 draft pick — a full-time player.

• Where Simmons can excel in New York: The Giants have nothing to lose after trading away a seventh-rounder for Simmons, so they should look to deploy him as a situational pass rusher.

• An adjustment period: Simmons earned a career-high 83.5 pass-rushing grade in 2022 but has never been a primary pass rusher.

Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes

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Linebacker Isaiah Simmons was supposed to change the NFL. At least, that’s what it sounded like when reading some of his scouting reports heading into the 2020 NFL Draft. And how could you not expect as much from a 6-foot-4, 238-pound defender who had over 33-inch arms and ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash while jumping 39 inches in the vertical and 132 inches in the broad?

But there’s a fine line between being versatile and being “positionless” — meaning a jack of all trades but a master of none. Three seasons into his NFL career, Simmons is still searching for a positional home.

Here are Simmons’ snap count alignments since coming into the league in 2020.

Position 2020 2021 2022
Edge Defender (DL) 92 240 115
Off-Ball LB (Box) 190 586 293
Strong Safety (Box) 12 14 24
Free Safety 9 2 56
Slot Defender 74 166 418
Wide Cornerback 15 23 59

Simmons played much more in his second and third seasons than he did in his rookie year, but he has not missed a game in his NFL career. So his lack of snaps at any point wasn’t due to injury.

As you can see, Simmons has played the majority of his career as a box defender, specifically an off-ball outside linebacker. According to NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah, that is actually the spot where he told teams he would be most comfortable in the NFL during the draft process.

“He tells everybody that he kind of wants to be an off-ball outside linebacker that will be allowed to rush,” Jeremiah said back in 2020. “He prefers to go after the quarterback on third downs. Talking to teams, they're excited about making him over tight ends.”

But Simmons became another case of a player who was drafted highly based on flash plays that didn’t give him a high enough floor. Speed is important at linebacker, especially in today’s game. The ground Simmons can cover in pursuit and in coverage is extremely impressive. But play in the box is about physicality, anticipation and navigating through heavy traffic and chaos. While Simmons has the finesse part of linebacker play down, he has proved unreliable when it comes to the physical requirement to play between the tackles, as evidenced by his 57.6, 42.3 and 47.0 run-defense grades over the past three seasons.

Playing him at safety or in the slot was the next most popular option. Simmons fared better in those areas, but only recently. While playing slot cornerback or free safety, he earned coverage grades of 45.4 and 37.9 before jumping to a 72.8 mark last season. Still, you could tell he still wasn’t playing as fast and free as his athletic profile suggested he could. He was thinking too much about the space and coverage responsibilities around him.

Simmons’ back-and-forth positional frustration in Arizona came to an end when the team traded him in late August to the New York Giants for a seventh-round draft pick. So what’s the best outlook for him now that he is getting a much-needed change of scenery? To answer that, we should go back to Jeremiah’s quote. I believe Simmons was right that linebacker was his best position, but his pass-rushing ability wasn’t prioritized enough in Arizona. That’s where he can be a very nice asset for the New York Giants in Wink Martindale’s defense.

The hard truth might be that the Cardinals severely overdrafted Simmons at No. 8 overall. It sounds harsh, but where and when he was drafted played a big role in the Cardinals' misuse of him. Right now, Simmons feels like a specialized player — not a full-time, versatile starter. But you can’t draft a guy at No. 8 overall and only play him situationally. That would look terrible on the front office and coaching staff. So Arizona did all they could to get Simmons on the field as much as possible. In doing so, they hurt their chances of extracting as much possible value out of the player.

The Giants have an opportunity to get the most efficient version of Isaiah Simmons we’ve seen yet, and that is because he’s not a former first-round pick they feel they have to justify. To them, he’s a unique athlete they took a flier on with a seventh-round pick and who they can utilize situationally to maximize what he does best.

And what he does best is get off the ball.

A lack of physicality in Simmons’ game hindered his effectiveness when playing in between the tackles in Arizona. He would have to shore that up if he's to line up there in New York, no question. But transitioning him into a full-time outside linebacker would allow him to truly focus on what he's best ar. The tape shows that Simmons wasn't playing as fast and free over the past three seasons because he was having to think too much.

Just let the man think about one thing: the quarterback.

No team in the NFL had more total blitzes (337) or a higher blitz percentage on pass plays (50.1%) than the Giants in 2022. That bodes well for expanded opportunities for Simmons, even as a situational player.

Simmons has never been a full-time pass rusher, so it will likely take some added weight and some time in the pass-rush lab for him to reach an adequate level, if that is his future. To be a full-time edge rusher, one must also defend the run — a facet that Simmons has struggled in. But, for now, letting him primarily be a situational pass rusher could have an immediate return on investment. Simmons’ highest categorical grade in his career came last season as a pass rusher, where he earned an 83.5 grade. He also recorded a career-high pass-rush win percentage (10.9%).

Hindsight is 20-20 on these things, but looking back now, Simmons was never going to succeed in Arizona. Where he was in his football journey versus what Arizona needed him to be were not on the same plane. But that is not to say he is a lost cause. In fact, I am very excited about what I have already seen with Simmons in the Giants’ defensive system.

Sometimes we overcomplicate an already complex game. Simmons is a big, long and explosive athlete. Make it simple for him: Be an athlete, and get after the quarterback. His versatility will grow if you root him in the right spot.

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