Ask any fan or national pundit what the biggest needs are for the Detroit Lions and they'll probably tell you offensive or defensive line. No one is talking about safety. Yeah, I know, it's not as pressing and it's probably easier to address, but it's an underrated need that deserves more attention.
Currently, the Lions only have two safeties under contract for the 2016 season: Glover Quin and Don Carey. My gut tells me that this is the last we've seen of James Ihedigbo in Detroit. Isa Abdul-Quddus did a decent job of stepping in for the struggling Ihedigbo last year, but I just don't get the sense that Teryl Austin exudes enough confidence in IAQ's ability to make him a full-time starter. Of course, this is assuming that the Lions will even re-sign IAQ. I'm sure they won't be the only team in contention for the 26-year-old safety.
S Justin Simmons (Boston College)
6-foot-2, 201 pounds
Since we're in the midst of the East/West Shrine Game week, let's focus on one of my favorite defensive backs in this year's class: Boston College safety, Justin Simmons. As I write this, we're just a couple days into East/West Shrine Game practices and Simmons is already turning heads. He is a sizeable safety that is best known for his range and instincts.
Those that have made the trip down to Florida and are getting their first look at Simmons are already clamoring about his playmaking ability as a deep safety.
Can see why Justin Simmons is such a rangy FS. He can turn and run very well. Always balanced and no false steps. #ShrineGame— TURRON DAVENPORT (@TDavenport_NFL) January 20, 2016
EW Shrine day 2- SCar OT Brandon Shell- 2nd solid day.. BC safety Justin Simmons making plays on ball- his ND tape was very good...— Mike Mayock (@MikeMayock) January 19, 2016
Justin Simmons picks Rudock on cross route, QB never saw him— Jeff Risdon (@JeffRisdon) January 18, 2016
Also, shoutout to The Draft Wire's Jon Ledyard, who recently sat down with Justin Simmons for an exclusive interview. Here's what Simmons had to say about himself:
"On the field I’d like to think of myself as a very intelligent player. I may not have the blazing speed that everyone is looking for, but I do have the mental aspect of the game and I do study the game like it’s a class. Whether that is reading the quarterback’s eyes, or reading the formation, reading the tendency on first-and-ten, second-and-15…I always try and put myself in the best situation as far as reading plays, which is the best quality I can bring to a team.
As far as off the field goes, I think the best quality that I can bring to any team is the fact that I’m a very level-headed guy. I’m very into my faith and I take my faith very seriously. I haven’t been in trouble in my four years in college, or really most of my life, which is a testament to my parents and the people that I’ve been around growing up. Whatever team has me will never have to worry about any off-the-field discrepancies as far as my personal life goes."
Simmons does his best work as a center fielder. He can cover a large area of grass with his elite ball-tracking and closing speed. As Mayock eluded to in his tweet above, Simmons' tape vs. Notre Dame was particularly impressive.
Simmons literally comes from out of nowhere to snag his first of two interceptions off of Notre Dame's DeShone Kizer.
The second one...
Simmons also has tremendous ball skills for a defensive back, as evidenced by his seven interceptions over the past two seasons. In the play above, he exhibits great awareness and concentration to haul in the INT.
Here, Simmons reads Clemson QB and Heisman nominee Deshaun Watson's eyes for an easy INT. He's at his best in zone due to his instincts and ability to understand and recognize routes developing in front of him.
When I refer to Simmons as three-dimensional, I'm talking about his capability of playing all over the field. Specifically, I believe he can play both safety positions, as well as cover tight ends/receivers in the slot. I could also see him playing SAM linebacker in certain packages, so make that four-dimensional if you'd like.
Simmons is constantly lauded for his range as a deep safety, but not enough credit goes to his top-notch tackling, especially in the open field.
Simmons has shown some ability in man-coverage, though he can definitely improve in that area. He lacks the desired foot quickness to play on the outside full-time and isn't as fluid as you'd like to see in coverage. He's a decent, but not great athlete that is too slow to change directions for a cornerback. He was forced to play on the outside during the second half of 2014 due to injuries and you could tell he was a safety trying to play CB.
Here's one of the better plays I've seen of Simmons in man-coverage. His length allows him to contest throws and he does a nice job of attacking the ball at its highest point. If he can refine his technique in man-coverage, his ceiling is unlimited.
How He Fits
Justin Simmons is the type of player that you just throw on the field and let it go from there. He can play deep safety, in-the-box, or even line up at nickel to cover pass catching tight ends and slot receivers. He reminds me a little bit of what I saw in Adrian Amos last year. Like Simmons, I saw a lot of potential in Amos with his versatility and ability to line up all over the secondary. The Bears took advantage of his versatility and lined him up in both safety roles as a rookie. By the end of the year, Amos led the Bears secondary in total snaps (1046) and total tackles (67). Simmons is a couple inches taller than Amos and an even better tackler.
For the Lions, Simmons can immediately fill in for James Ihedigbo -- should they move on from him -- at the strong safety position, though his best position may be as a deep safety in the pros. He is an outstanding tackler in the open field, as well as one of the more instinctive and rangy deep safeties in this year's class. With the growing admiration of bigger receivers and pass catching tight ends in today's NFL, having a Kam Chancellor-type safety that can guard bigger offensive skill players is becoming a necessity for teams. Justin Simmons can fill that role for the Lions -- though probably not to the ability of Chancellor -- and then some. If he tests well and runs a 4.50 40-time or lower at the combine, I'd imagine Simmons won't make it out of the second round.
Let's not forget about Glover Quin, who has also proven that he can play both safety roles, as well as slot corner in the past. With both Quin and Simmons, the Lions will have a myriad of possibilities at their disposal.
Grade: 2nd-3rd round
Games Watched: 2015 vs. Florida State, 2015 vs. NC State, 2015 vs. Clemson, 2015 vs. Notre Dame
2016 NFL Draft profiles: DL Jonathan Bullard (Florida), LB Reggie Ragland (Alabama), WR Mike Thomas (Southern Mississippi), DL Robert Nkemdiche (Ole Miss), OT Taylor Decker (Ohio State)
Don't forget to watch Justin Simmons and other prospects during the East/West Shrine Game which airs this Saturday, Jan. 23 on NFL Network (4:00 p.m. ET).