NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- When veteran Jurrell Casey was traded to the Denver Broncos for a seventh-round pick this offseason, the Tennessee Titans experienced a passing of the torch. It cleared the path for second-year defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons to show he could be a cornerstone on defense.
Take a walk outside of Nissan Stadium and you'll see Simmons along with safety Kenny Vaccaro and tight end Jonnu Smith on one of the four newly hung banners. Simmons' first test comes on Monday Night Football against Casey's Broncos (10:10 p.m. ET, ESPN).
But before moving on to his new role as a leader in the defensive line room, Simmons sent Casey a text thanking the nine-season veteran for taking him under his wing during his rookie season, especially when they found themselves on the PUP list together at the start of training camp last year. Simmons was working his way back from a torn ACL.
"I told him I appreciate him for everything he did for me coming in as a rookie," Simmons said. "Jurrell was rehabbing while I was rehabbing. When we were doing drills, trying to work to get back on the field, he stepped up and was like, ‘This is how you do this. This is how you do that,'" Simmons said.
Casey's departure spawned some reference to a "no name" Titans defensive line -- something Simmons didn't take kindly to.
"I think a lot of guys have a chip on their shoulder to show that no matter if we lost Jurrell Casey, we have guys in that room that can stand up and stop the run and rush the passer," Casey said.
Simmons has some big shoes to fill, but he's not looking to be the next Jurrell Casey. He wants to be the "best Jeffery Simmons" he can be.
The lighter, healthier Simmons
Becoming the best Jeffrey Simmons started with cutting down on fatty foods so he could slim down from last year's playing weight (around 320 pounds) to where he checks in now at 308 pounds.
During the offseason, Simmons was able to spend plenty of time at the team facility despite the pandemic because he was still considered to be in the rehab process from the ACL tear he suffered in February 2019. The work he put in -- along with his changed diet -- has him feeling closer to the player who was a force at Mississippi State.
"I feel like my change in direction is way better than what it was last year," said Simmons, who was drafted No. 19 overall in 2019. "Just being able to bend that left knee that was hurt. Just to be able to bend more and change direction, all that just feels more fluid to me. The bounce in my knee, everything is just feeling great right now. It’s kind of one of those deals, if you didn't know you were hurt you're not thinking about it, and that's how it is right now."
Defensive line coach Terrell Williams let out a belly laugh when asked about Simmons' weight loss. He said Simmons "looks leaner while his body fat is great." Williams added that Simmons runs to the ball and attacks the line of scrimmage so much better now that he isn't wearing the bulky knee brace he wore a year ago.
After finishing with 32 tackles (four for loss), two sacks and four QB hits in nine games as a rookie, outside linebackers coach (and likely defensive playcaller) Shane Bowen identified Simmons as one of the players who will be relied upon to set the tone on defense. Simmons said the plan is for him to line up in multiple spots along the line.
Combining Simmons' versatility with newly signed edge defender Jadeveon Clowney should create a disruptive tandem for Tennessee.
"Adding Clowney helps Jeffery Simmons," safety Kevin Byard said. "If you have a guy like Simmons creating pressure and getting sacks on the inside, then guys like Clowney and Harold Landry getting sacks from the outside, you're going to cause a lot of havoc."
The Titans will rely on Simmons to generate the interior pass rush that makes it harder for quarterbacks to step into throws or escape the outside pressure. The same goes when defending the running game. Simmons can destroy running plays by getting immediate penetration or merely causing congestion at the line of scrimmage.
"It's time to go take over, " Simmons said.
'Outwork the next man'
The takeover starts in practice, where Simmons has made it a goal to raise the level of intensity every day.
Every drill that Simmons does is executed with the intention of dominating whatever is in front of him. The Titans use trackers to keep count of player performance during practice. According to coach Mike Vrabel, Simmons was clocked at 18 mph while chasing down a running back on a screen play during practice.
"No matter what, I’m trying to outwork the next man," Simmons said. "We always compete with each other out there on the field right now, so it’s just like I’m trying to win every drill. Every snap that I get out there on the field, I want to go full tilt and be the best that I can be."
That competitiveness stands out, especially to rookie defensive lineman Larrell Murchison.
"It's his attitude to the game," Murchison said. "No matter what, he’s always into it. I really see his passion."
"He brings energy every day, no matter what type of mood it is," teammate DaQuan Jones added.
The Titans' team captains will have a different look with Casey gone. Although Simmons isn't among the newly named captains, Vrabel is impressed with the leadership that Simmons has shown.
"It's his maturity level is in all phases of our program," Vrabel said. "I really think he's been a great leader for that room and the effort in which he's practiced with. I think that his effort has been outstanding."