Without considering Jalen Ramsey as a safety prospect, the top safety spot remains unclaimed for the 2016 NFL draft process.
Boise State’s Darian Thompson seems to have assumed the top spot, but after a lackluster NFL combine, he’s far from a lock. Florida’s Keanu Neal earned an NFL draft invite, implying that he should be going high in the draft as well.
But Boston College’s Justin Simmons deserves to be in contention for the top safety spot. The former cornerback turned do-it-all safety offers natural ball skills, adequate and developing safety pickup coverage and efficient tackling that, coupled with top-flight athleticism, should merit Simmons’ place in the top overall safety discussion. He should be in the mix for a surprise second-round option.
Ball Skills and Finishing Ability
The trait of “ball skills” has always been a crucial part of defensive back evaluation, but it’s grown in importance over the last few years.
In the past, most teams saved third down as their passing down, so a dropped interception usually still meant a team was going to punt and possession would be changed. However, as the passing game becomes a more frequent three-down option, defensive backs need to be able to finish at the catch point, contest throws on multiple downs and, when possible, finish interception opportunities.
Ball skills are both developed and instinctive. Over his four-year career at Boston College, Simmons has bounced between cornerback and free safety, earning starts at both spots.
Along with that experience in multiple situations and attacking the ball from multiple foot platforms, Simmons offers that unique, instinctive timing to adjust subtly when the ball is in the air.
In the two plays below (shown together in one GIF), Simmons’ inherent timing and reaction in passing plays allowed him to snag two interceptions in the team's game against Notre Dame. While neither are a testament to all of the coverage upside he possesses, they highlight the ball-hawking upside he offers as a finishing center fielder.
More impressively, however, is Simmons’ footwork in center field coverage when he’s forced to read and react. Playing center field requires more than just hands or lateral quickness. It’s about gathering steps, staying low and balanced in coverage and, when the opportunity arises, exploding on a throwing window in the seams.
As in the play below, Simmons plays with a textbook pedal, the control to cross feet and anticipate the ball, and finish at the catch point for the interception with room to return.
Adequate Yet Improving Coverage Pick-Ups
Still developing as a free safety, Simmons needs to improve his timing and man-pickup from his safety position. While he clearly has the footwork after playing cornerback, and he gets work as a slot corner (an area he can prove effective if need be), his work in pick-up coverage when aligned as a safety still needs improvement.
In the play below, you’ll see Simmons in a Cover 2 alignment and drop as he comes into the frame after the first cornerback stays put.
Simmons stays low in his pedal and comes off just slightly delayed on the corner route. While he’s better suited as a Cover 3 free safety, he’ll need to work as a half-field safety in time.
It’s plays like this that he should anticipate and finish at the catch point rather than allow a catch, though it’s clear he narrowly missed an interception opportunity here and could see his footwork cleaned up quickly in the NFL.
Reliability as a Run Defender
Strong safeties are generally the safeties that offer the big hits, explosive tackles and dislodging plays on the ball-carrier that wind up in highlight reels.
But, generally, free safeties are relied upon to be the last line of defense, to finish with efficiency and reliability, not subject themselves to broken tackles.
Simmons rarely shows off powerful tackling ability in coverage, though it’s certainly in his arsenal, particularly on shorter and underneath routes when he’s in position.
In the play below, Simmons saw one of college football’s most dynamic running quarterbacks take off in the midfield on a 2nd-and-long play. With only Simmons separating Clemson’s Deshaun Watson from the end zone, the safety forced Watson to adjust laterally and was required to slow down. That gave Simmons the opportunity to get closer to the runner before engaging as a tackler and finishing the play.
Simmons' tackle not only prevented a touchdown, but it kept Watson in 3rd-and-long. It’s that efficiency and reliability that NFL teams should covet in Simmons as a midfield tackler.
Despite postseason draft buzz after a strong Shrine Game and NFL Scouting Combine, Justin Simmons still hasn’t merited much national discussion on his upside.
But just because he hasn’t earned press clippings or rumored first-round interest doesn’t mean Simmons isn’t worthy of a top-100 pick. In fact, by my grading scale and evaluation, Simmons is well worth a second-round pick and could be an immediate nickel and free safety option for an NFL team.
NFL teams covet versatility, athleticism and ball skills in their defensive backs. Simmons not only offers all three of those traits, but every reason to expect him to continue to grow at the next level.
While he may remain a sleeper at this point in the draft process, don’t sleep on Simmons meriting a top-100 selection and earning significant playing time early in his NFL career.