Just like his performances in the playoffs as the starting quarterback for the Denver Broncos, John Elway’s tenure as the general manager in the Mile High City has produced a mixed bag of results.
He’s whiffed on high draft picks, coaching hires and quarterback decisions but has also found his share of draft steals and meaningful free-agent signings; and selecting safety Justin Simmons in the third round of the 2016 draft is a shining example of nailing a draft pick.
A subpackage stud as a rookie, Simmons is now entrenched as a starter and has developed into one of the most well-rounded defensive backs in the game. He’s a standout run defender and tackler while also proving to be one of the NFL’s most sound coverage safeties. He allowed a 32.1 passer rating against his coverage last season after coming into his own with head coach Vic Fangio. Like most players, Simmons shined brightest in his contract year.
He’s coming off a season where he posted new career highs in passes defended (15) and interceptions (four) en route to being named second-team All-Pro from the Associated Press.
Armed with a projected $62 million in available cap space, Elway has openly stated he wants Simmons back in Denver.
"We want him back," he said on Dec. 30, 2019. "You know the options there. Before we came down [to the press conference], I talked to Justin and said, 'You know what, we want you back.' He's a great football player, but he's a better man. What he does outside of this building and what he's done in Denver has been tremendous — [it's] the type of guy he is. These are the type of guys that we want on this football team. Obviously, we have the franchise [tag] option there, but we'd like to get something done with Justin for the long term."
It appears unlikely that Simmons will be playing his football anywhere else in 2020, but Denver already has a pricey safety in Kareem Jackson that will cost $14 million against the cap next season. Will the Broncos really have nearly $30 million tied up in a safety tandem, a position largely not considered to be a premium position?
Let’s examine what could be ahead for the young superstar.
Where He Wins
Where does Simmons win? Everywhere.
Simmons is a dynamic, versatile and interchangeable safety with tremendous processing skills and an exciting physical skill set. Whether it’s defending deep zones, short zones, man coverage or playing closer to the line of scrimmage, Simmons thrives. Simmons truly spends about half of his snaps as a deep safety and the rest either in the slot or lined up in the box. He is an exceptional tackler with the ability to make game-changing plays on the ball.
He is clearly capable of handling a full plate of responsibility and his standout ability performing numerous tasks opens up more scheme multiplicity for the Denver defense. With no concerning limitations, Simmons is a valuable chess piece.
While Simmons is a top performer on the field, he’s also an exciting blend of size and athletic ability.
Measuring 6-foot-2 and 202 pounds, Simmons has nearly 33-inch arms and 10-inch hands while posting the following testing results:
- 40-inch vertical jump (91st percentile for safeties)
- 126-inch standing broad jump (84th percentile)
- 6.58-second three-cone drill (98th percentile)
- 3.85-second 20-yard shuttle (95th percentile)
10.84-second 60-yard shuttle (95th percentile)
Simmons has ideal size and explosive athletic ability. He’s the total package.
Potential Red Flags
It’s challenging to come up with any true notable red flags when it comes to Simmons but he’s had a few injuries throughout his career. As a rookie, Simmons missed one game due to a wrist injury and missed the final three games in 2017 due to an ankle injury that he sustained while celebrating s strip/sack. Otherwise, he’s been healthy and has currently played the most consecutive snaps of any defensive player in the league.
While Simmons has been a good player throughout his four NFL seasons, he wasn’t always the elite talent that was on the field in 2019. He truly emerged in his contract year with Jackson playing alongside him at safety and the defensive-minded Fangio plus his longtime cohort Ed Donatell as the defensive coordinator. The two are renowned for their ability to get production out of defensive backs.
Without trying to take anything away from Simmons, he just might be most valuable to Denver under the circumstances put in place last season. I’m more inclined to believe Simmons is among the best young defensive backs in football, but it’s worth noting.
Spotrac estimates Simmons will receive an average salary of $14.4 million, referencing the recent contracts for Eddie Jackson, Kevin Byard, Tyrann Mathieu and Landon Collins as comparable situations. Ironically, Jackson was a safety that developed under Fangio from his days in Chicago.
While Simmons is worth every bit of that projected contract and the references are certainly comparable, the big question for Denver is cap allocation as it pertains strictly to the safety position.
Potential Landing Spots
It seems silly to discuss landing spots other than Denver for Simmons. The Broncos are clearly the leaders in the clubhouse and while it may come down to a franchise tag, Elway has proven to consistently get long-term deals done with players he slaps the tag on with Von Miller and Demaryius Thomas as recent examples.
As detailed above, Elway wants him back. So does Fangio.
"He played great for us," Fangio said at his season-ending press conference. "I think he'll still at the stage of his career where he can still improve more, especially within the inner workings of our defense and mastering some of the things we do even better, which will only come through reps. It won't come through meetings. Really a good football player, a really good person and a really good teammate. He's everything we want in a player."
Simmons clearly wants to be back
"In my opinion, if a team wants you, you'll be here," he said. "It'll be a blessing either way. I've said it all season long, it's no shocker that I want to stay. I love the defense. It works for me, I think I make it work just as well. I think it's a good relationship. With that being said, it just has to work out. There's no hiding that I want it to work out. I just hope it does."
The general manager, head coach and the player have openly discussed their desire to get a deal done, Denver has the cap space, Simmons is one of the most exciting young defensive players in the league and there are no true red flags of concern. There aren’t any other suitors worth mentioning, although Simmons would be a hot commodity if he were to hit the open market.