Brian Simmons met Keith Gaither at a high school All-Star game in North Carolina, as the two linebackers played against each other. Simmons was drafted a few years later in 1998 by the Bengals. In 2020, the Bengals also drafted Gaither’s son, Akeem Davis-Gaither.
When the Bengals drafted Akeem, Keith reached out to his old friend Simmons. Simmons called Akeem and told him about adjusting to the NFL.
“I told him the first thing is to get into the locker room and be observant to those you want to be around and those you don’t want to be around,” said Simmons, via Geoff Hobson. “Attach to somebody who can show you how to do things the right way. How to study, lift, practice. Make sure when you see guys not on the same track, stay on the opposite side of the road.”
The 2020 draft is reminiscent of the 1998 draft. In 1998, the Bengals took Takeo Spikes and Simmons in the first round, Steve Foley in the third round, and signed Adrian Ross after the draft. They joined an inexperienced room, with James Francis being the only veteran. Canute Curtis and Reinard Wilson were both in their second years.
This season, free agent Josh Bynes joined Germaine Pratt in the Bengals’ linebacker room. They then drafted Logan Wilson, Davis-Gaither, Marcus Bailey, and signed Marcel Spears Jr.
Simmons has experience with some of Davis-Gaither’s coaches. Mark Duffner, Bengals current senior defensive assistant was Simmons’ linebackers coach in Cincinnati.
“Duff laid the groundwork for us. A great coach, showing us how to work on days off and taking notes.”
Simmons was also an area scout when current Bengals’ linebackers coach was he head coach at Temple and Miami. Simmons said he was “a smart football man, a good Xs and Os coach.”
Golden and Duffner met Davis-Gaither at the Senior Bowl, and Zac Taylor said they convinced him to draft the linebacker out of Appalachian State.
Simmons is glad that Davis-Gaither gets to begin his career playing behind Pro Bowlers Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins, along with D.J. Reader, Sam Hubbard, and Carl Lawson.
“It’s just like a running back. The better the people in front of you gives you the best chance to be the best you,” Simmons says. “He’s got some good football players in front of him. He just has to get as comfortable as quick as possible. If you don’t know what’s going on, you’re not going to play as fast as you’re capable of playing.”
Simmons commented on the fact that the Bengals are moving away from employing prototypical gap-stuffing linebackers and acquiring athletes at the position.
“One thing they’ve got on their side is athleticism, youth and speed. Now the pro game and the college game matches up so much better than it did when I came out,” Simmons says. “I think the transition is easier. Everyone in college is playing the spread. Go to the NFL and everyone is playing the spread.
“When we came in, you played nickel defense 30 percent of the time. Now you only play base 30 percent of the time. It’s not the same punishing game. It’s more of a spatial game. It’s about change of direction and ability to run. It’s a quicker transition.”
One thing that will be key for Davis-Gaither will be adjusting to the speed of the NFL game. As the expression goes, he needs to work until “the game slows down.”
“Is the game faster? Yeah,” Simmons says. “Part of that is not necessarily physical speed. I told him that the game is played faster at the next level not because guys are faster, but because they think faster. It’s a more decisive game.”
Before the Bengals even entered the draft, they had two presumed starters in Bynes and Pratt. Then with Wilson ahead of him in the draft, Davis-Gaither might have to start his career on the bench.
“Don’t go in being content with just being there. Don’t go in there content with being a backup,” Simmons also told him. “If you have that mindset, your actions have to drive that way. If you’re accepting of lesser things than you’ll do lesser things.”