Since the Dallas Cowboys traded away their first-round pick of the 2019 NFL draft for wide receiver Amari Cooper, the likelihood of drafting a blue-chip prospect seemingly went in the gutter. Blue-chip prospects typically don’t fall to the late second round, where the Cowboys are picking 58th overall to start their draft.
The 2014 draft was the unique situation where the Cowboys had a top talent fall to their selection in the late second round, when they selected Randy Gregory with the 60th overall pick.
Gregory, once viewed as a sure-fire top-10 pick, fell to the late second round because of a plethora of off-field concerns. He tested positive for marijuana at the NFL scouting combine and allegedly overslept for a meeting with the New Orleans Saints, which are just two of the myriad of reasons why his draft stock took a tumble in 2014.
It hasn’t been all sunshine and roses for Gregory since entering the league, having dealt with numerous drug-related suspensions, but things are certainly looking up for the Nebraska product. Gregory finished 2018 with six sacks, flashing the blue-chip talent that made him a potential top-10 pick when he declared.
Five years later, there appears to be a chance that lightning strikes twice for the Cowboys in the second round. Mississippi State defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons is one of the best players in the 2019 draft. Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams is without a doubt the premier defensive tackle talent in the class, but Simmons isn’t far behind, as the former five-star recruit has a top-15 skill set on tape.
Unfortunately, Simmons’ skill on the field is the easiest part of his evaluation. An incident in March 2016, before he ever played a game in Starkville, ended with Simmons being found guilty of malicious mischief while pleading no contest for simple assault. A video was made public of Simmons punching a woman. A senior in high school at the time, Simmons was reportedly trying to break up a fight between his sister and another woman when he “used physical force against one of those involved in the altercation.”
It appears Simmons made the most of his second chance, avoiding another incident after enrolling at Mississippi State and actually winning the school’s Newsom Award — given to him for his work on the field, in the community and the classroom.
When a top prospect’s stock falls, it’s usually because he either had off-field or injury concerns. Simmons is dealing with both, having torn the ACL in his left knee earlier this month, an injury that will likely force him to start the season on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list with a chance he doesn’t suit up at all in 2019.
While Simmons is the type of talent that could have endured either off-field or injury concerns and still landed in the first round, it seems incredibly unlikely a team owner would sign off on drafting a player in the first round who is dealing with both.
The fact that Simmons has seemingly been a model citizen since the 2016 incident will certainly help his case, but video evidence of that incident will likely elicit a great deal of criticism toward the team that ends up drafting him.
One owner who has proven to not be fazed by criticism is Jerry Jones, and defensive tackle just so happens to be arguably his team’s biggest need. Moreover, Jones has repeatedly shown he’s willing to take a gamble on a talented prospect with a troubled history.
Simmons is exactly the kind of talent who will catch the eye of Jones and the rest of the Cowboys’ front office despite his issues — he’s that good.
Listed at 6-foot-4, 300 pounds, the two-time All-SEC selection has the size, strength and athleticism to play either the nose (1-technique defensive tackle) or under (3-technique) tackle in the Cowboys’ scheme, though his ability to penetrate makes him a slightly better fit as an under tackle.
Simmons has uncommon mobility for a defensive tackle, showing the impressive lower-body flexibility to turn tight corners once he gets to an edge and change direction fluidly.
His quick get-off and deliberate hands allow him to consistently control the action at the point of attack, enabling him to reset the line of scrimmage against single blocks when necessary.
When Simmons plays with proper pad level, he displays the ability to hold his ground well against single blockers and double-teams. When his pad level gets too high, he can get displaced by double-teams on occasion.
Despite his ability to hold his ground and occupy blocks at the point of attack, Simmons is at his best when asked to penetrate and disrupt the backfield, which is exactly what he would be doing most of the time in Dallas.
Combined with a quick get-off, Simmons’ effective hands allow him to blow by interior offensive linemen with an assortment of bull-rush, hump, swipe, arm-over and push-pull moves. His active hands enable him to quickly discard blocks in the run game and get in position to generate pressure as a pass rusher.
Simmons is a more effective pass rusher than his 2018 sack total (2.0) would lead you to believe. In Mississippi State’s defense, Simmons was forced to play between the A-gaps on a large portion of snaps, allowing teams to frequently double-team him to limit his productivity as a pass rusher. Simmons’ 34 total pressures, per Pro Football Focus, are a better indication of his pass-rush ability.
When he was single-blocked, Simmons showed the ability to consistently beat his block and generate pressure on quarterbacks. As a pass rusher, Simmons’ feet consistently work in unity with his hands, allowing him to stay balanced and move fluidly throughout his rush. He displays excellent timing and force with his hands, allowing him to consistently win the hand-fighting battle.
Simmons does well as a run defender to identify blocking schemes, which gives him a better shot at beating his block and disrupting the play. Unlike most defensive tackles, Simmons’ motor and athleticism allow him to make tackles up and down the line of scrimmage.
He can stack and shed a blocker at the point of attack to make a tackle in his gap and he can chase down a zone run from the backside. Simmons in college had to be accounted for on each snap, as he was the most consistently dominant and effective member of the Mississippi State defense.
Simmons’ hand placement is fierce. He has displayed the ability to constantly attack leverage points in opposing blockers, which enables him to eliminate the anchor ability of those blockers. Here’s a great example:
Simmons, aligned between Kansas State’s left guard and center, does an excellent job of leveraging his hands into a long-arm technique after his initial fit.
As the left guard (No. 62) attempts to anchor against the long arm, Simmons expertly forklifts the guard’s outside wrist, clearing contact and eliminating the guard’s ability to drop his weight to stymie the power rush.
From there, Simmons is able to push the guard into the quarterback’s lap, getting a hit on the quarterback to cause an incomplete pass.
Overall, some may scoff at the idea of using a second-round pick on a player who won’t be able to suit up for the 2019 season opener, especially given the absence of a first-round pick. However, the potential long-term success should outweigh the short-term concerns.
If he was clean off the field, there’s no way the Cowboys would even sniff Simmons in the 2019 draft. But a troubled past and torn ACL could have one of the most talented players at a position of need within range of the Cowboys’ second-round pick.
If the Cowboys can come to terms with his past and trust that he won’t make the same (or similar) mistake in the future, they would be foolish to pass on Simmons if he’s available at No. 58.
Assuming a full recovery, Simmons could develop into the dominant under tackle the Cowboys hoped David Irving would eventually become. Though his rookie season would mostly be a wash, Simmons has the potential to be a Pro Bowl-caliber under tackle by Year 3.
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