For Bengals Special Teams Guru Simmons, Different Draft Remains Tale Of Tape

Darrin Simmons has seen it all.
Darrin Simmons has seen it all.

Darrin Simmons, the Bengals' notoriously superstitious assistant head coach, has been doing a lot more than using mirrors to become one of the NFL's most respected special teams coordinators.

But as he heads into his 19th season on the job in Cincinnati, even he may try knocking on some wood as he delves into what appears to be the most unpredictable offseason of his tenure.

Simmons has gone through seven defensive coordinators, six offensive coordinators, three franchise quarterbacks, a lockout and pandemic. But he may have never seen anything like this.

First there is free agency, where the core of his unit is headed after three straight seasons in the NFL's top 10, per the rankings of Football Outsiders. Second, there is the draft process that has been partly gutted with the elimination of the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis later this month as scouts and coaches try to gauge the impact of last season's truncated schedule of practice and games on the prospects.

"It's one of the most uncertain years I've had since I've been here," says Simmons, who doesn't have his three veteran specialists or his returners under contact. "For me, the combine is the only place I could compare and contrast. That's the biggest thing. That's a melting pot of prospects.

"It could be the most challenging it has been when you're scouting guys. I think it could more difficult to get a hold of medical information. It's going to be more difficult to see these guys in person, in action. A lot of it is going to be based on tape evaluation and those conversations you don't have in-person are going to be on Zoom."

Simmons has made a career out of overcoming losses and adjusting to each new roster.

In 2018, he lost a top fourth-down player in tight end Cethan Carter, a current core player, and they finished seventh in the rankings. In 2019, after losing co-special teams captain Vincent Rey and adjusting to opposing units scheming to stop Pro Bowl alternate Clayton Fejedelem after he led the team two straight seasons in teams tackles, they led the NFL in special teams rankings. Then after Fejedelem signed in Miami this year, Simmons filled well enough for that No. 9 ranking in 2020.

He'll need some of that magic. Four of the kicking game's top five snap leaders (linebacker Jordan Evans, Carter, safety Shawn Williams, running back Samaje Perine) are free agents, as well as a former NFL kick return champ in Brandon Wilson and a former AFC kick return champ in Alex Erickson, their primary punt returner the past five seasons.

While they did replace kicker Randy Bullock late in the season, he still appears to be an option to return. They figure to be able to re-sign hometown punter Kevin Huber off his career year and probably long-snapper Clark Harris, a tandem for the past decade.

Some will return. Some won't. What's assured is there is going to be some shifting going on in what has been the most consistent phase of their team during the past three years.

"We're going to have to buckle down and get the evaluations right," Simmons says of the draft. "We'll be in lockdown comparing our guys to what is out there. In a lot of those spots, we don't have guys behind those guys."

It would appear that Wilson, not only a Pro Bowl-caliber gunner but author of the longest return in Bengals history, would be a priority to re-sign, as well as core guys like Carter and Evans.

But the key is making sure there are talented players in the que and last week's Senior Bowl showcased to Simmons the challenges facing not only the teams, but the prospects.

As one of head coach Zac Taylor's three coordinators, Simmons sat in on 128 interviews shoehorned into the four days in Mobile, Ala., and was amazed at some of the stories coming out of the pandemic.

One prospect played two years of junior college and one year at a small school and when his season was cancelled last year he decided to go into the draft.

"He comes out playing one year of I-AA football. That's crazy to me," Simmons says. "But part of me gets it with the uncertainty of the pandemic and where are we going to be in August? I don't think we're going to know that. I don't how many players we spoke with, even from Division I, opted out. Chose not to play. There were some kids (that transferred). It's a very, very, very strange time for a lot of these college kids. They're caught between a rock and a hard place and it stinks for them."

And it's no day at the beach for the scouts and coaches trying to project all that into the league. Simmons is thinking about timing. Receivers and routes. Defensive backs and breaks on the ball. Quarterbacks and their throwing angles in relation to receiver and defender.

"Some of the guys hadn't played football. Some in over a year. It's their first live action in over a year," Simmons says. "How do you judge their rust? How do you judge their getting back into the game, getting back on the field? So much of football is about timing.

"They haven't played in so long and some not at all. It's a very gray area."

Compared to past years, that made the talent in Mobile hard to judge, Simmons believes, and while he thinks last year was a definite advantage for the Bengals to coach the Senior Bowl, he's not so sure about this year. He pointed to the possibility of not only exposing coaches to the virus, but also the club's support staff.

As it was, Taylor and his coordinators were just one of four NFL coaching staffs to scout the game. Simmons says the Senior Bowl did a good job with protocols and he did get plenty of information from the interviews as he bounced between the pair of prospects each team got to interview for 15 minutes.

"I'm a bit of a fly on the wall. I like to listen," Simmons says. "A lot of times, I'll tell you, the first impression is the most accurate one. But I try not to form an opinion on a guy based on a 15-minute talk."

A different year. But for Simmons, not all that different as he attacks his 19th roster in a third different decade.

"What do they do on the tape?" Simmons still wants to know of the prospect's games. "That's the most important thing. A lot of times what they are on tape is what they are. It's not what they run or jump. What do they do on tape? That's kind of where you always go back in my mind."

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