In what was a weak 2016 draft class in its entirety, the safety group has developed into arguably the weakest positional group of all with just three of the 19 safeties selected progressing into impact apex defenders as we enter year six for this class.
Justin Simmons, a small-school talent relative to the attention garnered by the other poster child ACC programs, has flown under the radar for far too long. His skill set and leadership have developed into one of the NFL’s best within one of football’s most talented rosters.
The start of Simmons’ career was of typical proportions for any safety looking for an immediate impact. He began working rotationally within a veteran Denver secondary, garnering just 26% of the snaps in his rookie campaign. It was a short-lived role; Simmons’ punch and athletic versatility were quickly recognized by the Broncos’ newly-minted head coach Vance Joseph in 2017. Simmons started in 13 of 16 games in his sophomore season, as the Broncos trudged to a 5-11 record, ending the year in the basement of the AFC West. And while issues in the front office and lack of talent offensively served as the de facto rationale for the overall lack of success on Sundays, Simmons kept his nose to the grindstone, as he always has, working his way to a concrete role within a secondary now infused with both experienced veterans, and young, uber-athletic talent.
Joining Simmons in 2021 will be the fresh faces of Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby, and Patrick Surtain II, the Broncos’ ninth-overall selection who has turned heads so far in OTAs. That’s not including dual fifth-round safety selections Caden Sterns and Jamar Johnson, who offer excellent rotational and special teams value as they look to carve out a role within a loaded Denver secondary room in year one; but it’s Simmons who’ll lead the way.
Simmons, who has a sparkling new four-year, $61 million deal that made him the highest-paid safety in all of football, will be looked on, again, to serve as the cog that turns the wheel in what could develop into an exciting, triumphant campaign in the Mile High City. The Broncos eye their first playoff appearance since Denver’s defense led the way to its third Vince Lombardi trophy in 2015.
What makes Simmons special is his preparation pre-snap. While similarly built free safeties around the league opt to work at the apex of the defense solely as a ceiling defender with limited impact near the line of scrimmage, the 6-foot-2 Simmons is both a thumper on plays over the intermediate portions of the field, and a high-impact player on designed concepts near the line of scrimmage (LOS).
It doesn’t get much better than this, as Simmons works around the trips concept on third-and-1 to wrangle down the Los Angeles Chargers’ top target in Keenan Allen before the line to gain. Very rarely will you see defensive coordinators opt to use a safety close to the LOS in man on third-and-short, especially when it involves covering a talent like Allen, who is known for his elite short-distance quickness, and his ability to leave opposing defenders in the rearview mirror due to his all-world footwork. That ability and diversified skill set are what has denoted Simmons as the de facto top free safety in all of football.
As the Broncos enter a crucial campaign in head coach Vic Fangio’s third season in charge, a defensive leader in the form of Simmons doesn't come around often and will be looked up to accordingly. With 3,221 snaps played over the last three campaigns intertwined within 48 consecutive starts, Simmons represents everything the Broncos stand for as they eye their first taste of competition past Week 18 since Simmons began his stay within Denver’s secondary.