One of the hottest names in the 2020 NFL Draft was star Clemson defensive player Isaiah Simmons. I say "defensive player" because labeling Simmons as a player with a singular position is unfair given his track record at Clemson. Just take a look for yourself.
Isaiah Simmons by alignment for Clemson in 2019:— Field Yates (@FieldYates) January 18, 2020
* Safety: 218 snaps
* Slot CB: 286 snaps
* OLB: 160 snaps
* ILB/MLB: 120 snaps
* Perimeter CB: 17 snaps
He rushed the passer 71 times and had *7* sacks.
The most versatile player in the 2020 NFL Draft.
While Arizona defensive coordinator Vance Joseph says he will be a linebacker for the Cardinals, it's clear that his skill set will allow him to be a moveable chess-piece for that defense. Though that piece will likely be more rook-like in nature rather than queen-like as it was with Clemson.
Despite the declaration from his future coordinator, the question begs to be asked whether or not outside linebacker is truly his best position. Does his coverage ability and speed actually make him a better fit as a safety? Does his play recognition and tackling make him a better candidate to play as an inside linebacker? Is he actually a good enough pure outside linebacker to justify a top-ten selection? No one is quite sure yet, and the lack of clarity was pretty much the only knock on Simmons as an NFL prospect.
But the 2020 Draft is behind us now. And without any football scheduled with any certainty for the near future, the focus has shifted to looking even further ahead to the 2021 NFL Draft. And when looking at that group, one of the most interesting names is none other than Penn State's Micah Parsons.
When it comes to those "way-too-early" 2021 mock drafts, Parsons is a fixture in the first round, projected as high as the sixth-overall pick. He is being touted by many as the "next Isaiah Simmons". Lofty praise, to be sure. But is it accurate?
|Tackles for loss||18.0||25.5|
Well, despite playing in four fewer games and not becoming a starter until his true sophomore season in 2019, Parsons has come darn close to matching Simmons' production from a statistical standpoint over the past two years. The only truly notable discrepancy between them is the interception gap (Parsons did drop multiple chances at picks last fall). It's clear that the talented Nittany Lion is at the very least on-par with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Their 40-yard dash times are even remarkably similar. Simmons clocked in at 4.39 at the 2020 combine, and the most recent known time we have for Parsons (as of October 2019) is 4.43.
But the comparisons don't stop there. Just like Simmons, Parsons is more than capable of filling multiple roles on the field. While the Clemson product spends most of his spare time haunting opposing receiving threats in coverage, Parsons moonlights as a dominant pass-rusher. For those that may not remember, Parsons was a defensive end in high school and was recruited as such. It was only after arriving on campus that he officially made the switch to linebacker.
The former five-star has become most well-known for his sure-tackling, hard-hitting, and incredible vision and speed, but he also gets into the backfield and makes plays behind the line of scrimmage at an elite level. In fact, if the coaching staff decided next season to line him back up as a full-time defensive end, he almost surely immediately become the best edge rusher on the roster (a roster that includes Shaka Toney, Jayson Oweh, Adisa Isaac, and others, mind you).
Simply put, both players are incredible athletes with amazing versatility, nearly identical production, and All-American pedigrees. There is clearly good reason as to why the two have already been compared and will continue to be so as the 2021 draft slowly approaches. So what exactly sets them apart?
The fact that the Parsons has accomplished the amount he has in his first two years on campus with only one year as a starter is a big factor, sure. But when comparing Simmons and Parsons, the two key factors that will have NFL general managers salivating more over the latter are the fact that Parsons is still nowhere near his ceiling, and the certainty he offers at his primary position.
The leaps and bounds Parsons has taken over the course of the past two seasons have been striking to watch. He's made the types of improvements over half-season spans that you would expect someone to make during the offseason. After struggling a bit as a freshman to fight through blockers and find the best path to the ball carrier, he became unblockable in 2019 and saw a huge uptick in his tackle-for-loss numbers as a result. After being victimized a bit in pass coverage in 2018, he turned around and made it a strength of his game as a sophomore and should have had at least two sure interceptions. He proves on a weekly basis that there is nothing he is incapable of, and he is still just learning how to play the position. He already has the highest floor of any linebacker in the country, and his ceiling continues to elevate every day. With Simmons, however, considering that he won't be able to line up at all the positions he did in college, it's worth wondering whether his stock has actually already maxed out.
But maybe most importantly, despite being the type of player that a coach could move around just like Simmons (don't be surprised to see Parsons field a kick, take a carry, or even drop back into deep coverage next season), any NFL team will be able to draft him knowing full-well that they have an instant starter at outside linebacker. His greatest strength as a player is that he has learned to channel all of his incredible athletic abilities into making himself the best possible linebacker that he can be. He may not offer quite as much flexibility as Simmons position-wise, but he offers the certainty of top-tier play at his primary position that Simmons does not.
So as 2021 draft gets into full swing following the conclusion of the next college football season, the question will likely be asked once again – is Micah Parsons the next Isaiah Simmons?
The answer is no. He's better.