This article is the first in a series of articles breaking down all six of the Titans 2019 draft picks. Check back later in the week for more on A.J. Brown.
The Titans made one of the most interesting picks of the first round when they selected defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons from Mississippi State with the 19th overall pick on Thursday night. Simmons was widely considered one of the best players in the draft, but a torn ACL suffered while training for the combine and an off field incident in 2016 made his eventual landing spot complicated.
Titans GM Jon Robinson told reporters that he considered moving down — and had some offers on the table to do so — but he believed there was a team in the range they would have moved into that coveted Simmons and decided not to risk losing the opportunity to grab him. My working theory is that the team that the Titans were worried about was the Colts. For one, there were plenty of reports linking Indianapolis to Simmons pre-draft.
There is a ton of buzz around Jeffery Simmons to the #Eagles or #Colts at 25 and 26.— Connor Rogers (@ConnorJRogers) April 20, 2019
I'm curious if a team tries to jump them for him - as I've said before Baltimore and Seattle would most likely be willing to move back
The Colts also had plenty of draft capital loaded up to make a move back ahead of the Titans if Simmons had dropped any further. Indy would later trade out of the first round altogether after finding nobody they felt worthy of the 26th overall pick.
Regardless of which other teams might have wanted Simmons, the Titans ended up with him. However, before we get into what Simmons is as a football player, let’s address the incident and the injury that caused him to be available when the Titans picked him at 19th overall.
For many Titans fans a video of Simmons, a high school student at the time, assaulting a female was the very first impression they got of their first round pick as ESPN made the rather controversial choice to show the video as soon as the pick was announced. I won’t link the video here, but it’s not hard to find if you want to see it for yourself.
There is some context that needs to be added to fully understand what happened that day. To be 100% clear, none of this justifies what he did in any way whatsoever. It was a reprehensible act, but it can help us understand where that act came from. To get that context, I would highly recommend reading this outstanding piece from Chris Hummer of 247Sports that dives deep into what happened and some of what Simmons has done since to earn a second chance.
There are some people that will always view Simmons through the lens of what happened on that day in 2016. There are others that will be more willing to give him a second chance and a fresh start. I don’t know that there is a right answer. However, it’s clear that Simmons has done and said all the right things in the three years since. He was Mississippi State’s team leader when it came to community service, was a two-time member of the SEC’s All-Academic Honor Roll, and has a legion of coaches, advisers, and administrators that are willing to go above and beyond to vouch for him.
He’s been direct and accountable about the incident, never trying to sidestep blame or justify his behavior. Simmons knows what he did was wrong and is trying to do everything he can to make up for it.
When Mississippi State’s athletic director and coaches decided to take the risk of bringing him on campus, Simmons promised not to let them down. He lived up to that promise over three years as a Bulldog. Now he’s making the same promise to Amy Adams-Strunk, Jon Robinson, and Mike Vrabel, as he discussed in an emotional press conference.
Jon Robinson has been careful to bring in high character players during his time as GM of the Titans so that makes Simmons’ selection stand out even more. Tennessee’s brass knew they were going to have to answer some hard questions when they made this choice, but they felt strongly enough about the player and the person to go ahead and make the move. Time will tell whether that was the right decision, but it seems like they spent quite a bit of time vetting Simmons off the field and came away comfortable enough to bring him into the community.
By all reports, Simmons has made the most of the second chance that Mississippi State gave him, not just staying out of trouble, but going above and beyond to give back to the community. He changed his major to human development and family science and spent a lot of time speaking at schools near Starkville because of a drive to be a mentor to young kids, particularly those without father figures as Simmons grew up without the presence of a father in his life.
None of this makes what he did in 2016 okay, but it does show a young man that is trying to better himself and understands that second chances aren’t always guaranteed. I’ll leave this subject with Mike Vrabel’s quote about Simmons as I think it rings true.
“There are bad people, and there are good people that make mistakes — bad, horrific mistakes. And you can fix mistakes, you can’t fix bad people. And I can’t wait, and I’m excited to have Jeff sit in front of you guys and share that story. He doesn’t hide behind it. He stands up like a grown man and he owns it. And I can promise you I will be proud of him when he meets with you, whenever he does, that this is a good guy, this is a great guy that made a horrific mistake. He lives with it every day of his life and I’m very confident, as is Jon, that he will make everyone here proud.”
Simmons suffered a torn ACL the weekend of February 9th and 10th while preparing for the combine. That injury is likely to cause him to miss most of his rookie season. I did a deeper dive on a possible return here, but the short version is that we could see Simmons hit the field as early as Week 8 against the Buccaneers. That would match the time frame that we saw with Jack Conklin’s 2018 return from the same injury. If the Titans wanted to wait and take advantage of a late bye week, they could bring him back in Week 12, and take advantage of a scheduling quirk that sees them play four of their six AFC South division games in the final six weeks of the season.
Obviously, in hindsight, it’s fair to question whether the Titans might have brought Conklin back too quickly. His play was mostly poor after coming back and he suffered another knee injury that eventually ended his year. All injuries and recoveries are different, so what didn’t work for Conklin might work for Simmons and vice versa. It’s impossible to know for sure. However, I’d be somewhat surprised if we don’t see Simmons at all in 2019.
Besides how much time he is going to miss with this injury, there is also the question of whether or not Simmons will still be the same player when he comes back. The answer to that is complicated, but recent studies show that elite players — as Simmons certainly appears to be (more on that later) — recover from these types of injuries faster and more completely than average players. Whether that’s because of an advanced healing ability that comes with being supernaturally strong and fast or a byproduct of the work ethic that elite players almost always possess isn’t totally clear, but the better the player, the more likely a full return seems to be.
Also working in Simmons’ favor is his age. Younger players frequently recover from injuries better than older players. At just 21, Simmons certainly qualifies as young, even by NFL standards. He also plays a position that leans less on lateral quickness and change of direction skills than other roles. While I wouldn’t expect Simmons to be 100% at any point this season — players generally take at least 18 months to return to anything close to what they were pre-injury — it’s not crazy to think we could see 80-90% of his full ability before the year is over.
So let’s get into Jeffery Simmons as a football player. In three seasons at Mississippi State, he compiled 28 starts, 163 tackles, 33 tackles for loss, and 7 sacks. Simmons also blocked three kicks during his time in Starkville.
We will talk a little bit about the relatively low sack numbers later when we get to the film breakdown, but I think there are some reasons for that number not lining up with some of the others. His 30 tackles for loss over the last two seasons ranked first among all NCAA players weighing at least 300 pounds.
Advanced stats love Simmons. He graded out above 90 according to PFF in both of his final two seasons at Mississippi State which puts him among just a handful of prospects to meet that threshold in back to back years. They had him with the fourth highest win percentage on overall snaps among interior defenders in 2018.
Simmons also checked in with the fourth highest run stop percentage among the draft eligible interior defenders. His pass rush productivity checks in at 18th despite a constant barrage of double teams thrown his way and his pass rush grade checked in over 90 which puts him in the elite range according to the popular football analytics service.
Obviously, Simmons didn’t get to participate in the combine or his pro day as he recovered from the knee injury, but we do know that he checks in at 6’-4” tall and 301 pounds with 34.5-inch long arms and 10.25-inch wide hands. Mississippi State reports that he can bench press 450 pounds, squat 600 pounds, and carries just 15% body fat despite tipping the scales over 300 pounds. Simmons’ build is pretty rare.
While we don’t have any official testing numbers for Simmons, there are some rumblings out there that he was set to crush the combine if he’d gotten a chance to attend. His camp sent the video below out of some of his pre-combine workouts to teams in lieu of a combine or pro day performance. The video includes a claim that he was running a 4.85-second 40, something that The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman was told as well.
Thanks to tearing his ACL, Mississippi State standout DL Jeffery Simmons didn’t do drills or tests at the Combine or Pro Day. But here are videos of Simmons at XPE Sports at around 310 pounds, pre-ACL tear. A look at the prospect teams will be getting pic.twitter.com/HdNMFIFP6D— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) April 9, 2019
Simmons is fast — maybe even really fast if you believe the times that his camp were reporting — but speed isn’t his game. It’s just a nice cherry on top of the devastating raw power he brings to the table.
Simmons is quick off the ball and if he beats you out of your stance as an offensive lineman, it’s already over, as Louisville’s right guard finds out here. He just misses the safety here, but you can get a glimpse of his enormous strength and leverage as he runs through the guard like he’s not even there.
Another clip from the same game. This time Simmons takes the center and walks him right back into Lamar Jackson’s feet, bumping him as he releases the pass.
The sight of Simmons walking a center or guard back into the quarterback was a common sight throughout his tape.
Here is another example from the same game. This time it very nearly results in a sack, but the quarterback is able to get the ball away just as Simmons arrives.
Even when doubled, Simmons can create pressure with his bull rush. Here he swipes the guard away and then shoves the center back to the quarterback and takes away any space to step up.
This next snap is another great example of how Simmons can work with the Titans speed rushers off the edge. Mississippi State’s edge rushers force the LSU quarterback here to step up and Simmons is there waiting after bulling the center back into the pocket. It’s not hard to imagine Cameron Wake and Harold Landry forcing quarterbacks to step up into a pocket that Simmons and Jurrell Casey are collapsing from the middle. Simmons and Landry as a long term pairing should help each other’s numbers quite a bit.
Simmons’ power is quite a load to deal with, and when you combine that with his lateral quickness, you get a guy that can be virtually unblockable at times. Here you can see the center expecting the bull rush and trying to cut him off before he can build up momentum, but instead, Simmons gives a quick club-swim move and then explodes up field to sack the quarterback. The club-swim and the bull rush are Simmons’ go-to pass rush moves.
Here is another example of the club-swim move. You can really see the power in his hands here as he nearly swats Iowa’s left guard to the ground with just one hand. Simmons then maintains his balance through contact as the center tries to come back to disrupt him and finishes with the sack.
Despite his immense physical size, Simmons has the ability to get skinny as he tries to shoot gaps between offensive linemen in the pass rush. Here, he works to half man on the center initially and then pushes through a tight gap between the center and left guard before closing on the quarterback to get the hit.
Another thing that stood out with Simmons is that he’s able to transition from run defense to pass rush quickly and effectively. Play action and RPOs are often effective at getting pass rushers to slow their pursuit of the quarterback because they have to read run first. That’s what Simmons does here, reading out the fake before splitting the double team and getting pressure in the face of the quarterback.
Because he’s such a difficult one on one block for an offensive lineman to handle, Simmons got double teamed... a lot. Mississippi State was smart enough to use that to their advantage. They sent a lot of blitzes behind Simmons, knowing that offensive lines would be focused on slowing down #94. Here is one example. Simmons draws both the center and right guard, leaving just the right tackle and running back to pick up three Bulldog defenders. Not a good situation for Alabama.
Again here, two offensive linemen go with Simmons and nobody is home to pick up the blitzing linebackers who get pressure resulting in a big turnover.
Take a look at all the attention paid to Simmons here. Florida is left with just an H-back to try and block the defensive end because there are three white jerseys surrounding the big defensive tackle.
Against the run game, Simmons can also wreck offenses. As you can imagine, his play strength makes him a handful to move off the ball. Here, he pries the left guard out of the way like a can opener and makes the tackle for loss.
Simmons is quick enough to cause issues from the backside as well. Here, Iowa has a zone run called, but Simmons is having none of it as he beats the reach block with ease and makes the tackle for a huge loss in the backfield.
Simmons is just a problem in the middle at all times. Asking anyone to single block him, even if they’re just being asked to cut him, is generally asking for trouble.
There aren’t many holes in Simmons’ game, but one that I noticed was a tendency to guess gaps in the running game. Here is an example. He should be controlling and scraping along the line of scrimmage here against the outside zone run, but instead, he tries to flash upfield which opens up a hole for the running back. That’s something that can be coached at the next level and it’s always preferable to try to dial back a player’s aggression than have to ask them to ratchet it up.
I mentioned above that Simmons blocked three kicks during his time at Mississippi State. Here is one of those. It really shows off the kind of athlete that he is. The leap, the balance to land on his feet, and then the burst up field to go recover the ball are freakish for a guy with his size/power combination.
Overall, Simmons is as disruptive an interior defensive lineman as you’ll see in college. Lance Zierlein of NFL.com gave him the lofty comp of Ndamukong Suh — and had him as the second ranked player overall in this draft class — while others compare him to another former Bulldog in Fletcher Cox. I can see glimpses of both guys in Simmons which is an enormous complement. He has the rare blend of natural strength and quickness that give him really limitless potential at the NFL level.
At Mississippi State, Simmons was primarily deployed as a nose tackle which left him susceptible to constant double teams. When he did get one on one matchups, he dominated. I would expect the Titans to play him all over the line as a 1-tech nose tackle, a penetrating 3-tech defensive tackle, and as a 4-tech or 5-tech defensive end. He’s capable of playing all those spots effectively.
Paired with Jurrell Casey, he will force offenses to pick their poison on the inside of the Titans defense. Simmons’ ability to push the pocket with power will fit well with Casey’s quickness-based game.
As much as Titans fans want their new toy right now, Simmons will be worth the wait. Getting him with the 19th overall pick may look like an absolute heist in a couple years.