The 2020 NFL draft class is not offering the first wave of elite athletes who can line up and serve in multiple roles on a football field. However, with each passing year there seem to be more and more college players whose skill set expands their abilities beyond a defined, singular position. In an era where position flexibility is at a premium with up tempo offenses and subpackage defenses, the elite athlete who can serve a multitude of roles is more coveted than ever.
This year's draft has close to 20 such prospects, some of whom we'll profile later. But is football headed down a path where it looks more like basketball on grass?
Tapping into the multi-faceted talent
If you ask NFL general managers they're not ready to call NFL football a position-less game just yet, but they do believe premium athletes are essential on both sides of the ball.
"I don't think position-less is the right word, but as NFL offensive styles evolve to more of what is run at the high school and college levels, defenses need versatile defenders that can play in space," said LA Chargers GM Tom Telesco. "Being big and stout down the middle at defensive tackle, linebacker, and strong safety has evolved into those players being able to play with length, speed and range as well as strength."
That necessity is part of what prompted Telesco to take S Derwin James with the 17th pick in the 2018 draft.
"A strong safety who can cover a tight end or wide receiver as well as tackle like a linebacker in the box (is valuable)," said Telesco. "Those are difficult combinations to find obviously but the more versatile chess pieces you have allows the defensive coordinator more flexibility in how he attacks the offense."
Scroll through to view photos of prospects that some mock draft experts have Buffalo selecting in the second or third round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
The pick prior to James was made by Buffalo when the team traded up to 16 to land LB Tremaine Edmunds, who though he has played just middle linebacker in his two years with the Bills, has seemingly limitless range.
"With position less players it's just about getting the guy on my team and I'll figure out where to use him," said NBC Sports' columnist Peter King. "If you look at Edmunds in Buffalo right now, he's a guy that I think might not play as many positions, but he's extremely dangerous all over at the back end of the field. I think we're looking at that as more and more of a trend in the NFL."
"I do think players are becoming bigger, stronger and faster every year," Bills GM Brandon Beane told Buffalobills.com. "The short answer is it's a matchup league. You're trying as an offense to find where you can get mismatches. You look at how Carolina is using Christian McCaffrey or New Orleans with Alvin Kamara. So to flip that on the defensive side, you've got Derwin James, Jamal Adams and then Isaiah Simmons coming in this year's draft. You've got to find answers for some of these pieces. You've also got more quarterbacks who are mobile."
Even up front, pass rushing defensive ends are lighter and faster than they were 10 to 15 years ago. It's more common to see 240 to 255-pound edge rushers. Those players used to be targeted by opposing coordinators who would run right at them, and some still do. But even that has changed with those lighter players mastering leverage and being more effective against the run. So what was the offense's answer to that?
Use the entire field.
"Offenses spread the field much more now than 20 years ago and defenses need players who can defend a lot of grass without giving up the size and strength you still covet," said Telesco. "It is a constant move and counter move by offenses and defenses."
Necessity feeds the desire for versatility
Beane remembers years ago when he was with the Carolina Panthers how the club transitioned a college safety in Thomas Davis to a linebacker role in the NFL.
"We drafted Thomas Davis in Carolina for one reason, to stop Michael Vick," said Beane. "We needed to have linebackers who could keep up with him. Mobile quarterbacks are even more prevalent in our league now. You've got to have players at the second level who can cover and also chase these quarterbacks down."
With more mobile signal callers the task has become more frequent for NFL defenses week to week. Buffalo's Josh Allen, Baltimore's Lamar Jackson and Houston's Deshaun Watson are quarterbacks who can simply run away from that faster edge pressure.
To combat dynamic tight ends and bigger and taller slot receivers, defensive coordinators are looking for 'big nickel' defenders, which is a hybrid type player that has the body of a weakside linebacker, but the speed and athleticism of a slot corner.
The Bills utilized a pair of their safeties in this role last season in Dean Marlowe and Siran Neal, who typically played against heavier offensive personnel groupings like two back or two tight end sets.
"On the defensive side of the ball, you're trying to find dynamic playmakers because the skill talent that's coming in on offense is going to continue to get faster and more athletic," said NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah. "That's what the college game is and that's made its way to the NFL. You better have linebackers that can run all day long and cover and you better have safeties that can be interchangeable, can play high, can play low, and can really run with range. You want to have a couple of edge rushers and you better have speed everywhere else. That's kind of how you're building teams right now."
But it's not just the defensive side of the ball that's trying to have all its bases covered. The offense is trying to have versatile personnel on the field so they can go up tempo, not make any substitutions and still maintain an air of unpredictability.
"If you're facing a defense and you go 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end) and they've got to play the run, and every guy on offense can catch the ball, well out of these five guys who can catch the ball we have three good mismatches," said Beane. "So let's keep them in this defensive personnel group as long as we can and go tempo and see if we can get a big play or at least get the ball into scoring position. It's finding your best personnel versus theirs. That's why game plans are so important."
Some of the most versatile prospects in the 2020 draft
It's also why a player like Clemson's Isaiah Simmons is expected to be a top five pick this spring. He is an answer to the very problem Beane outlined. At 6-3 ½ and 238 pounds he has the size to play the run. He also runs a 4.39 40-time and played a good deal of safety in college. So if he has to cover an athletic tight end or receiver man-to-man it's an assignment he can easily handle.
"This guy from Clemson named Isaiah Simmons, I don't even know what position you would call him," said King. "One coach said to me, 'I could see him play safety. I could see him play any linebacker position and I could also see him playing slot corner if you had an urgent need.' You'd probably have him more as a safety or an edge guy in your linebacker unit.
"Just imagine you're going to play 65-70 percent nickel defense. That means that you have mostly seven back end players on the field very often. If you have seven back end players and sometimes eight, imagine having a guy who can play anywhere on that back end. That's Simmons."
A couple of the top safeties in this draft class are small school players in Southern Illinois' Jeremy Chinn and Lenoir-Rhyne's Kyle Dugger. Both have great back-seven flexibility as well. They can play the 'big nickel,' safety or even slot corner if necessary.
Finding linebackers who can play coverage and also pressure the quarterback on obvious passing downs is the other kind of flexibility NFL personnel executives are seeking. A prospect like Wisconsin's Zack Baun is such an example. He played all three linebacker positions at times during his three-year college career, but also rushed the passer posting 15 career sacks. In coverage he had four pass breakups, three forced fumbles and two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
"Zack Baun is a guy you can move around and get a lot of production as a pass rusher," said ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper. "You can do a lot of things with him inside, outside and he certainly was a more versatile guy. I think he's intriguing."
But as teams seek versatile answers on defense, there appear to be just as many freakish type talents available on the offensive side of the ball in the draft. NFL clubs are looking for the next Deebo Samuel, who proved to be a valuable and versatile offensive weapon as a rookie receiver/rusher and helped San Francisco win the NFC title last season.
Colorado prospect Laviska Shenault is listed as a receiver, but much like Samuel offers a great deal more than that.
"I think Shenault would be a fun toy for a team as somebody that could play in the slot," said Jeremiah. "You can use the fly sweep stuff with him. You could put him in the backfield and hand him the ball. He's done that a bunch at Colorado. Shenault would be a heck of a lot of fun. Finding that kind of player is going to be a theme for a lot of these teams."
Another physical specimen with uncommon athletic ability is Notre Dame's Chase Claypool, who was a dynamic aerial weapon for the Irish. At 6-4 and 238 pounds he looks more like a tight end, at least until he ran a 4.42 40-time at the combine and posted a 40 ½-inch vertical.
"We're not labeling guys as much anymore and Chase Claypool is just a big mismatch guy in the passing game," said Senior Bowl Executive Director Jim Nagy, who invited Claypool to Mobile. "So whether he's a big wide receiver or a tight end, whatever you want to call him, he's a big strong dude that can go up and get the football. And a smart coordinator will find a role for that guy."
Even later in the draft, a player like Memphis RB/WR Antonio Gibson is a talent with 4.39 speed who had almost as many carries as he did receptions in his two seasons with the Tigers. Most teams see him primarily as a running back, but having experience splitting out as a true receiver increases his value.
"I think what you're trying to do in the league today is have multiple pieces and be able to create some personnel mismatches without substituting players on and off the field so that you can run tempo," said ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay. "And I think a good number of these prospects fit that bill really well."
Athletes will dictate the game's future
As long as there are offensive and defensive lines there will always be designated positions in football. But off the ball assigned positions are getting blurred on offense and defense as game planners search every week for an edge. And those athletes who can serve in multiple roles and provide multiple answers will be the ones on the field the most.
"When you have offenses trying to manipulate personnel and get certain groups on the field like the Ravens did last year when they had three tight ends that they put their opponents in certain sets and then split the tight ends out, you better have more versatile players that can do multiple things," said Jeremiah. "So with a guy like Isaiah Simmons, whether you want to list him as a linebacker or safety, I know you plug him into that defensive scheme and week by week you can deploy him in different ways depending on what the strength of your opponent is. That's why he has so much value.
"Putting these kinds of players in little position boxes I think that's going to go away eventually."