Seahawks don’t mind taking draft risks. Could defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons be their next?

Analyzing the Seahawks’ options in the 2019 NFL Draft

Gregg Bell breaks down who the Seattle Seahawks might take in this year's NFL Draft.
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Gregg Bell breaks down who the Seattle Seahawks might take in this year's NFL Draft.

He’s a freakishly skilled, versatile defensive tackle who can also play end. He physically mauls blockers. He’s a high-risk, potentially very high-reward wild card for a unit that needs prized talent.

He’s a prospect who on skill alone is a top-15 NFL draft pick. But red flags have dropped him down most team’s draft boards—far enough of a slide where trading down into round two still might afford you the chance to draft him.

Jeffery Simmons from Mississippi State, who’s been called “the most high-risk, high-reward player” in next week’s draft, sounds familiar to the Seahawks.

Two years ago, Seattle traded down twice and out of the first round. Then they drafted Malik McDowell as their top choice, at 35th overall in the second round. Most NFL people believe McDowell would have been gone by pick 11 in 2017 had he not spooked scouts and general managers by basically taking his final season at Michigan State off. He didn’t show much effort while his college team was dragging through a three-win year.

McDowell never showed a thing in Seattle. He never played a down or even practiced for the Seahawks. He sustained serious head injuries from a mysterious ATV accident months after he signed his rookie contract. Seattle released its 2017 top pick last month, with its medical staff believing he should never play football again.

Picking McDowell two years ago is why the Seahawks need another stud interior defensive lineman again in this week’s draft.

But Seattle has a parallel need in this draft: to trade down. The Seahawks have traded their first-round pick in seven consecutive drafts. Seattle has just four picks, the fewest in the league. Four would be the fewest in team history.

Seahawks general manager John Schneider talks contracts, prospects, Russell Wilson, Frank Clark and more at the NFL combine in indianapolis.

General manager John Schneider absolutely is seeking trades to acquire more picks.

Asked by The News Tribune the chances Seattle ends this draft having made just four selections, Schneider smiled wryly and said: “I hope it’s slim, yeah.”

It is.

And the most attractive chip the Seahawks’ GM has to deal is his 21st-overall pick in round one.

He could trade down and still likely select a wild-card defensive tackle for the second time in three years.

Simmons destroyed centers while mostly playing nose tackle in the mighty Southeastern Conference; Seattle has been trying to find a stud nose tackle to anchor its defensive line since Brandon Mebane left to sign with the Chargers in free agency three years ago.

Yet Simmons is quick and athletic enough to have lined up outside at Mississippi State as a five-technique end. He dominated those one-on-one battles, too.

That’s the inside-outside, old Michael Bennett role the Seahawks were envisioning for McDowell.

Like McDowell, Simmons is a strong, 300-pound bull with unique height for a defensive tackle. Simmons is 6-feet-4; McDowell is 6-6.

Simmons would be a top-10 pick in this draft if not for the torn anterior cruciate ligament and knee reconstruction he had in February. He isn’t expected back on a field until October, at the earliest. Many teams believe his first NFL season will essentially be redshirt one spent rehabilitating the knee all year.

There’s a lot of focus heading into draft week of the Seahawks’ need to replace departed All-Pro Earl Thomas at safety. NFL draft guru Rob Rang of Tacoma has in his mock draft Seattle choosing safety Johnathan Abram, Simmons’ teammate at Mississippi State, in the first round if the Seahawks don’t trade down.

Others targeting the Seahawks’ need to find an edge pass rusher to pair with Frank Clark, and a big wide receiver to help a unit that has issues; Doug Baldwin is trying to come back from three offseason surgeries at age 30.

But coach Pete Carroll values stopping the run inside as the basis for his defensive system. And last season Seattle made the playoffs despite its run defense.

It allowed 4.9 yards per yard rush last season, by far the worst average of Carroll’s nine-year tenure. Of all the statistics on defense, that one galled Carroll the most.

Seattle was tied for the third-worst rushing defense average in the league. It was the Seahawks’ worst rushing average allowed in 16 seasons, since the 2002 team also surrendered 4.9 yards per carry—and finished 7-9.

This year’s is one of the deepest classes of NFL-ready defensive linemen in recent drafts. Two could go in the first four picks: Ed Oliver from the University of Houston and Alabama’s Quinnen Williams. Michigan defensive lineman Rashan Gary could also go in the top 10. Clemson teammates Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence plus Notre Dame’s gigantic, athletic Jerry Tillery, may be more defensive linemen that become first-round picks.

None of them may be available when it’s Seattle’s turn to pick at 21, or especially if the Seahawks trade down yet again.

But Simmons could be.

Rang said if Simmons slides through round one—and he said that’s a big IF—“I can’t imagine he slides far” into round two.

“Probably the first five picks or so, like McDowell or Jaylon Smith,” Rang said of the second round for Simmons.

The Dallas Cowboys drafted Smith 34th overall, the second pick in round two, in 2016. That was three-plus months after Smith tore two major knee ligaments in the Fiesta Bowl starring at middle linebacker for Notre Dame. Smith missed all his 2016 rookie season. But now he is Dallas’ full-time starter at middle linebacker coming off a 121-tackle season for the Cowboys.

Beyond Simmons’ reconstructive knee and ongoing recovery, some teams also have questions about him being shown in a video, aired by WCBI in Mississippi in 2016, hitting a woman while she was on the ground. Simmons said it was in response to comments the woman made about a deceased family member.

Simmons pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of simple assault. He was found guilty of malicious mischief. He was fined $475 and paid $886 in restitution.

“I haven’t met one person who’s had a perfect life,” Simmons told 247Sports in an article published last August, just before his final season at Mississippi State. “Everybody is not perfect. That’s something I can’t live on, one bad mistake. That’s something I’ve had to live by ever since that happened.

“You’re going to find that point in life where you have to step over that stone and keep moving.”

The Seahawks have made another player with violence against a woman in his past their top draft choice recently.

In 2015 Clark fell down or off many NFL teams’ draft boards after his arrest and brief jailing in Ohio for a domestic-violence incident in Ohio.

The Seahawks traded had traded their first-round pick for tight end Jimmy Graham that year. Then months after the University of Michigan kicked Clark out of its program for the arrest, Seattle made him its top draft choice in 2015 by selecting him in the second round.

That has worked out brilliantly for the Seahawks, and for Clark.

He had a career-high 14 sacks in 17 games last season, including Seattle’s playoff loss at Dallas. He has 33 sacks in his last 48 games. He’s about to go from a $943,000 salary in 2018 to $17 million or more this year, depending on whether he plays for the Seahawks in 2019 under their franchise tag they gave him last month or a new multiyear contract the team is negotiating for with him.

So, yes, Simmons is entering the NFL with another characteristic Carroll covets: a chip on his shoulder, formed by all those teams doubting him.

Carroll has built Seattle’s best sustained run in franchise history in large part by stockpiling those kinds of guys. Second-chance, motivated guys.

Guys such as Clark worked out, splendidly. Guys such as McDowell, who ultimately wasn’t so motivated, did not.

Could Simmons be Seattle’s next draft dice roll?

“I am going to come back stronger and more determined than ever,” Simmons posted on his Twitter account soon after his pre-combine knee surgery. “If it is in God’s will, no matter which team drafts me this April, I will work extremely hard to get healthy and become a leader in that organization.”

Gregg Bell is the Seahawks and NFL writer for The News Tribune. In January 2019 he was named the Washington state sportswriter of the year by the National Sports Media Association. He started covering the NFL in 2002 as the Oakland Raiders beat writer for The Sacramento Bee. The Ohio native began covering the Seahawks in their first Super Bowl season of 2005. In a prior life he graduated from West Point and served as a tactical intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, so he may ask you to drop and give him 10.