Stop me if you’ve heard this before: an uber-athletic Clemson Tigers defender leaps off the screen for his versatility and ability to impact the game in a slew of ways — setting the table for a soaring draft stock based on the trends of the NFL to embrace more of a spaced-offensive game. No, I’m not talking about former Clemson defender and Arizona Cardinal Isaiah Simmons. I’m talking about Trenton Simpson, the Clemson linebacker who enters the 2022 college football season well poised to challenge for the top-half of the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft if all goes according to plan. But while that description is the cause of plenty of excitement, it may be a cause for concern for others.
After all, Simmons hasn’t necessarily set the league on fire after becoming a top-10 overall selection for the Cardinals back in 2020. Yes, 2021, appeared to be an important step in the right direction for Simmons as a player, but the third-year defender has taken a lot of time to assimilate to the NFL game and even now his ability to defend the run as a true linebacker can be a pain point at times when you watch him on film.
That is an important footnote in profiling both Simmons as an NFL player and Simpson as an NFL prospect. Because yes, there are some fun similarities between the college team and the defensive system (at least through 2021, as Brent Venebles is off to Oklahoma) but there are some stark differences, as well. In working through my presentation of Trenton Simpson to the rest of the TDN team during our scouting meetings last week, my teammate Keith Sanchez seemed to coin the perfect phrase to summarize where the essential split in both of their resumes lies:
“Kyle, would it be fair to say that Isaiah Simmons was a big safety who was asked to play linebacker in space, while Trenton Simpson is a true linebacker who is asked to play linebacker in space?”
Yes, Keith. It would. So much so that Clemson’s roster listed Simmons as a safety for his first three seasons in Death Valley, whereas Simpson is listed as an “explosive linebacker & edge rusher.”
And that’s where I find the most enthusiasm for projecting a high grade for Simpson in the here and now. He’s certainly still got growth opportunities ahead of him in 2022. And this isn’t to dump on Simmons and his transition to the NFL. But I see more true linebacker reps in Simpson’s film at Clemson from last season that should afford him a better chance to grow into the role he’ll be asked to play in the NFL as well — a luxury that Simmons didn’t have when he arrived in Arizona and had to learn how to be a second-level defender who needed to key and diagnose the run from a stacked linebacker alignment.
Now, it is important to note that I didn’t collect a lot of stack linebacker reps from Simpson’s game in the contests I studied from last season, either.
“[…] The one area we didn’t see a ton of him in the games I studied was as a stack backer on the second level. Clemson did boast Baylon Spector and James Skalski (plus Jeremiah Trotter Jr.) in this role in 2021, so it could possibly have been due to other tenured players being available. But as offenses motioned or flipped the strength with a shift, we did get some glimpses of Simpson pushing into a stack and his reps here didn’t usually offer the same dynamic play. Can this be an area of growth for him in 2022?”
But I did see ample outside linebacker from both depth, on the hash and walked up on the line of scrimmage — all areas in which I can Simpson making an impact on the next level as well. The challenge of “where is his home in the early downs” affords you some more flexibility than Simmons did, especially with the pass rush prowess of the former. If Simpson can add more accuracy with his hand strikes and counters as a rusher off the edge, it would open up a whole world of possibilities for playing him in roles that would keep him out of the stacked box life, all together. And given just how tough that transition has proven at times for Simmons, that might be the best pathway forward here for Simpson.
Simpson still, thanks in large part to the Venebles scheme but also in part due to his length, ability to flatten and turn corners and an explosive first step, sported a pressure rate over 30% on nearly 100 pass rushes last season. He’s a half sack away from Simmons’ career sack totals in half the amount of seasons.
The parallels between the two are fun. But the differences between the two are even moreso.
Time will tell what kind of draft stock Simpson can drum up for himself in comparison to Simmons. It’s a narrative he’ll likely have to face down at some point, especially if Simmons doesn’t become the player this year we all thought he could be when the Cardinals drafted him in the top-10 overall. But Simpson’s pathway to a more seamless transition than his predecessor is already clear; especially with Venebles no longer coaching the defense for Clemson: show growth with your hand-fighting abilities this upcoming season and make the stack alignment discussion a moot point. Or, heck, play more traditional linebacker roles and find the same confidence you currently bring to playing in space.
You gotta love options, right? Simpson has a few to ensure he’ll separate his narrative from Simmons.
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