NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee rookie quarterback Malik Willis made a business decision when he found himself facing off against Pro Bowl defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons in a live tackle drill at training camp.
He went straight to the ground.
“I was like, 'No, this can’t be right,” Willis said Sunday of the moment earlier in camp. "But I just do the drill. I turned around ... and I just get down and I’m not going to get hit by him.”
Other NFL quarterbacks don't have that luxury against the 6-foot-4, 305-pound lineman coming off his best season. He not only helped lead the Titans to the No. 1 seed in the AFC with a team-high 58 quarterback pressures, Simmons also had a career-high 8 1/2 sacks in his third NFL season.
Simmons added another three sacks in Tennessee's divisional playoff loss to Cincinnati, setting a franchise record for the postseason. Linebacker Harold Landry, who led the Titans with a career-high 12 sacks last season, says Simmons sets the tone for their defense.
“He's absolutely one of the best leaders that you’re going to find,” Landry said. "I’m excited as hell to have him, to be able to line up next to him. He’s a great player, but he’s also a great person. And he backs up everything he says. So that’s what you need out of a leader like him.”
Simmons is showing the Titans and his teammates just how much he wants to be a leader on this team.
Despite switching agents earlier this summer, Simmons reported on time for training camp. He is under contract through 2023 with the Titans picking up his fifth-year option. However questions arose during the mandatory minicamp about whether he might want a new deal when Simmons attended — but did not step on the field.
On the first day of practice at camp, Simmons cut off questions about whether he wants a new contract.
“I am not talking about contract," Simons said. "I’m focused on football. I’m in camp. I’m here. I’m trying to be the best I can be as a football player.”
Simmons has been speaking up more as well. Titans coach Mike Vrabel said playing to a certain standard like Simmons does gives him the luxury to hold other people to that same standard.
“Everybody leads differently, but I do appreciate Jeff’s willingness to play with passion and also hold guys accountable, and then he’ll hold himself accountable if he doesn’t live up to the standard that he set and that we expect of him,” Vrabel said.
The Titans expect a lot from Simmons, who fell to them at No. 19 overall in 2019 after he tore his left ACL that February.
Only three-time AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and Pittsburgh's Cam Heyward received more All-Pro votes last season for interior linemen than Simmons, who tied Kansas City's Chris Jones with 10. Simmons not only led Tennessee in sacks in games five times last season, he also stopped Josh Allen on fourth-and-1 to seal a win over Buffalo.
Simmons responded by working even harder this offseason. He wants to be more consistent, including with his weight, reporting to training camp at 309 pounds after going up to 315 last season. He practiced his footwork in Dallas using ladders and other techniques with his uncle Jason Hatcher, a 10-year NFL defensive end himself.
And he keeps working on his pad level, effort, technique and getting his hands from the ground up to the man trying to block him. All to add more tools to his powerful bull rush.
And a man who hasn't had too many nicknames seems to have picked up one that has stuck. Just call him “Big Jeff,” which is now on his custom thigh pads.
“That's what we go with,” Simmons said.
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