Jeffery Simmons didn't exactly have the easiest ramp-up period to his first NFL season.
The defensive tackle who was a surefire top-10 pick tore his ACL in February 2019 while training in preparation for the draft, causing teams to shy away from him. He landed in Tennessee via the 19th-overall selection, making it back in time to appear in nine games, record 32 tackles (four for loss) and two sacks. He also added 13 total pressures, per Pro Football Focus.
This will have been his first fully healthy offseason as an NFL player, which again came amid adverse circumstances thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. That hasn't kept Simmons from continuing to grow, both physically and as a young leader of these Titans.
"I think he's feeling better physical," Titans coach Mike Vrabel said of Simmons, via the team's official website. "I think that his effort has been outstanding. We talked about it. When you track the GPS and you see the guy's mileage in practice, and maybe how fast they were going, to be able to see a guy 315-320 (pounds) that's running 18 miles an hour is pretty impressive. He was just chasing 30 or 40 yards downfield on a screen, just playing with effort and trying to get his conditioning in, and so, that was something I think that maybe stood out early on."
Part of Simmons' return to full health included getting comfortable on his recovered knee, which the defensive lineman aided by losing 10 pounds during the offseason. That weight loss shouldn't hurt his ability to push blockers back while rushing, but can help explain Vrabel's recollection of Simmons' impressive on-field speed.
"I know I am moving around pretty good, and my body is feeling good," Simmons said. "I am feeling great, and now I am getting ready for Week One vs. the Broncos. And that is my main focus: How can I keep getting better as a player, and as a teammate? ... I am just trying to stay focused, and do what I can."
Speed could be key for Simmons, who was projected as a difference-making defender coming out of Mississippi State and might help ease the transition out of a defensive line anchored by the since departed Jurrell Casey, and into one built around Simmons.
Vrabel raved about he and fellow defensive lineman Daquan Jones' leadership skills, maturation and how they've taken command of a group once led by Casey. Combine the vocal impact with the physical, and the Titans might just have themselves a first-rounder ready to blossom.
"I have been told since college ball, when a team sees defensive linemen, big guys running to the ball like that, teams get wary, 'Can we really throw screens?,'" Simmons said. "And it's not just me. It is the whole defensive line, and the whole team running to the ball. ... If a leader is doing that, of course the other guys will follow. (My main thing) is, how can I take the next step in my game? Running to the ball is taking another step in the game. That is something I take a lot of pride in, running to the ball, because you never know what may happen.
"Every snap on the field I want to go full tilt, I want to be the best that I can be. I want to be the best Jeffery Simmons that I can be."
With his football future once threatened, it's clear Simmons isn't taking a single snap for granted. That type of dedication bodes well for Tennessee's future up front.