2020 draft class features versatile defenders who can play multiple roles

Isaiah Simmons had a great answer when asked at the NFL Scouting Combine what position he plays.

"Defense," the dynamic hybrid defender said without skipping a beat.

Simmons, who was listed as a linebacker, also played safety and edge rusher for Clemson. In fact, Simmons said he played as many as five different positions in a single game.

After a Combine in which Simmons measured in at 6-foot-4, 238 pounds and ran a blazing 4.39-second 40-yard dash, it's easy to see why he's a perfect utility knife for a defense.

"When we evaluate players, we're always trying to find out how much they can do," Baltimore Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said at the Combine. "Can they play inside the box? Can they play on the edge? Can they drop? Can they rush the passer? Are they smart players? Can they play multiple positions? Can corners play safety? Can safeties play corner? All those types of things really do factor into the evaluation process.

"They help you build a roster, No. 1. But on game day they also help you create different looks that confuse the offense. And that's a big part of what we do."

That was the case new Washington Redskins head coach Ron Rivera made for having as many versatile defenders on the roster as possible.

"I've got a couple guys that will tell you I like position flex, I really do," Rivera said. "I believe in it. Guys that do give you an option to move guys around, but also you won't have to tip your hand.

"If you don't have to rotate a guy off the field if the guy can stay on the field, you can change your defense, your defensive philosophy and look almost instantaneously. But now you start rotating guys in, you tip your hand a little bit that hey you're going into your nickel package or you're going to call your nickel defenses."

Simmons isn't the only player in this draft with position flex. A couple other names to watch are Wisconsin linebacker Zack Baun and LSU linebacker K'Lavon Chaisson.

"One of the teams identified me as like 'the toy' – a can do it all linebacker, give me the opportunity to rush the edge, play off the ball, drop into coverage, use all my skillsets to the fullest," said Baun, who recorded 75 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks for the Badgers in 2019.

Chaisson did his fair share of rushing the passer for LSU, but he also played in the slot some, dropped in coverage and played in space.

That's a skill set more and more NFL defenses are looking for with the way offenses keep adapting and the rules keep changing in their favor. Tight ends are more commonly becoming an offense's most dynamic weapon, along with talented pass catchers out of the backfield.

The NFL has always been a matchup game, but offenses are becoming more and more creative with the ways they get their weapons in space, and defenses have to continue to counter with versatile defenders who can play multiple roles.

Adapt or fail.

View photos of the linebackers working out at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

"When you hire someone do you want to hire someone who speaks one language or do you want to hire someone that speaks three languages? I speak three languages," Chaisson said.

"I do pass rush. I can drop in coverage and cover anybody you want me to cover. I can play the run. And no offensive lineman has ever just moved me off the ball, or bullied me. So I feel like that's what makes me more dimensional. And a more valuable player than anybody else in the draft."

A lot of teams are on the lookout for versatile defenders.

"The days of saying, 'Hey, we need a MIKE linebacker or we need this.' There's certain traits you're looking for, but you're looking for position-less players," new Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said. "The offenses in the league are changing, so the defenses have to be able to do a lot of things. I think you're seeing a lot more of that in the Combine as college football has really spread out.

"We're going to try and stay ahead of the curve on that, make sure we keep bringing guys in who can do a lot of different things for us, that give us multiplicity within the roster."

More and more teams are looking for versatile defenders like Simmons, Baun, Chaisson and others, including defensive linemen that can play up and down the line, those kinds of defenders are being more and more coveted by NFL defenses.

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